Losing to Gain: The Central Paradox of Death Rituals – The Break that Binds by Isaac Pollak


[Ed. Note: This is a reprise from 2014. — JB]

Central to religious practice, rituals may often seem intentionally obtuse, to the point of irrationality. This, in fact may be their very purpose. By devising rituals that at times seem to make little or no sense to the uninitiated, those who learn to perform the rituals – if not understand them, become part of a distinct community. The fact that rituals often don’t make practical or rational sense is exactly what makes them useful for social identification. The cognitive psychologist Christine LeGare has done a number of studies showing that rituals declare that you are a member of a particular social group. Lewis Mumford, the social philosopher, historian, and greatest urbanist of the 20th century, makes a clear case that what sets humans apart from other animals is not the use of tools, but rather our use of language and ritual, and those are what makes us “Community”. Sharing information and ideas among participants was the foundation of all societies, and “community is the most precious collective invention.”

Although there are rituals designed for every aspect of the human life cycle, the rituals surrounding “DEATH” are often the least understood, yet the most often performed. Even the irreligious may insist upon death rituals for themselves or their loved ones. Matthew Frank in his book Preparing the Ghost speaks about “our need to mythologize, ritualize, and spin tales about that which we “fear.”

The greater the lack of comprehension, the increased the amount of the rituals with DEATH, by far the most ritualized of any aspect of a society’s life cycle in every culture. The more rituals there are, the stronger the bonds of community and social identification. The life cycle events the least understood emerge in ritual earlier and are more deeply rooted.

Witness the recent tragic murder of three young Israeli teenagers which bought every dimension of Judaism – and beyond – into a unified community – from the Ultra-Hassidic to Messianics. Everyone adopted and prayed for these young men in accord with the adage ”kol Yisrael Arevim zeh l\L’zeh”, all of us are responsible for one another. Death brought us a sense of unified community as nothing else ever could.

A life broken, an individual link lost, paradoxically strengthens the group unity and identity. Rituals give us a sense of control over an area where we have none. Mundane actions are suffused with arbitrary conventions, and that makes it important to us and gives us a sense of “being in charge”. Rituals engage members of a community in the collective enterprise of building and sustaining a “PEOPLE.”

Jewish death rituals have a foundation that travels back in time 3000 years and has made us a community like none other. In fact, a new developing Jewish community has an obligation to set aside ground for a cemetery before setting aside land for a synagogue. How wise were our Rabbis.

Let us preciously value these so vitally irrational traditions and hoary rituals that bring us together to pray, to improve ourselves, and to elevate ourselves in response to mysteries we don’t comprehend.

Let me conclude by paraphrasing the German poet Rainer M. Rilke in his letters to a young Poet:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

 

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak is President and CEO of an international marketing business for almost 4 decades at this point. He holds graduate degrees in Marketing, Industrial Psychology, Art History, and Jewish Material Culture from City College, LIU, JTS, and Columbia University. He has been a student in the Gamliel Institute, and serves as a consultant to the institution. He has been the rosh/head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, for over 3 decades, and is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, having several hundred in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC. Born and raised in NYC, married, with 3 children and 3 grandchildren.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact info@jewish-funerals.org or  j.blair@jewish-funerals.org for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

Information on attending the online orientation and course will be sent to those registered.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

If you are interested in offering a teaching, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have complete three or more Gamliel Institute courses are invited to be on the lookout for information on a series of “Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (in three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first two series tentatively planned will be on Psalms and on the Death & the Zohar. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge to attend (more information to be sent soon). Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact them, register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Give Polish Jewry a kosher choice


Remember “Had Gadya”? What satisfaction when, onto the scene of carnage, walks the Holy One of Blessing, and destroys the angel of death that slew the butcher that killed the ox that drank the water that quenched the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the kid. And what relief! But only momentarily. For where are we in this lineup of violence? It is forever, for us, the question of what am I, now, an angel of death or the little white kid that daddy bought for two zuzim? And can I be both? And do I have to be either?

To be human is to be aware of one’s own morality. To be able to act morally, we must have the freedom to choose to do or not to do so, which demands we have the freedom to reject morality. Without that freedom, we are but tools in other people’s hands. 

In the recent debate on the Polish government’s decree de-legalizing shechitah, or kosher ritual slaughter, we hear strident voices from many sides. Some say the only motivation for the decision was to prevent needless animal suffering. Other voices argue that skillfully performed shechitah causes the animal less pain than all the other feasible methods of killing it. Others still express discontent, outrage or fear, due to the fact that discontinuing kosher slaughter effectively makes it impossible for observant Polish Jews to eat meat altogether.

I do not know which is worse: a shochet’s knife to the throat, or a killing machine in a meat plant. I know that, kosher or not, slaughterhouses are cruel places, where overworked butchers have to do their quota of killing, and helpless animals experience horror and pain. While I realize that Poland cannot, for reasons of its largely agriculture-based economy, its traditions and customs, opt out of mass production and consumption of meat, I would like government experts to conduct an inquiry into all killing of animals — not just the preparation of kosher meat — to ensure that animals’ deaths can become less traumatic than they are now. As important is an inquiry into how these animals live before they find their deaths in Polish slaughterhouses. I imagine a national commission, made up of Muslim leaders, Progressive Jewish leadership, Orthodox rabbinate, philosophers and ethicists, as well as animal behaviorists and farm engineers, working together to design ways to lessen the severity of pain we inflict on livestock as it is reared, handled and killed. 

Once a viable system is designed and a door is opened about kosher (and halal) slaughter, it may be easier to open it for all slaughter. So what I imagine as a solution now is a law that would keep wholesale butchering for export markets outlawed, but would ensure that Polish faith communities that require kosher (or halal) meat are enabled to butcher the chickens, the calves, the cows and the kids whose meat they want to eat. In other words, I want a law that, while keeping the ban on mass killing for foreign markets, would ensure the existence in Poland of slaughterhouses producing meats for local communities and provide for this meat’s fair distribution. 

My current choices don’t really give me a choice. Could the sages of our government work with our rabbis to devise a law that would return to Polish Jews the freedom currently enjoyed, at least potentially, by non-Jewish Poles, of pondering in meat shops the decision of whether to participate, with just a flick of my credit card, the animal hecatomb people have carried on since Noah and the flood, or refusing to do it? For Jews to be able to exercise such a choice, the meat bought or rejected must be kosher meat. 

We are a complex people. We embrace our diversity. Given the freedom to choose, some of us will want to go and butcher that kid that they can buy for two zuzim. Some will let it live. Some will focus on whether the kid can live a life where it is treated with care and regard for its needs, and whether it dies as painless and humane a death as possible. Some will flicker between choices, depending on a myriad of reasons why. Even though I hold with one of these choices only, I respect them all. After all, only the Knower of Secrets, the Holy One of Blessing, knows what lies deep at the root of our choices and how we arrive at our decisions. And it is only when He, the final player in the “Had Gadya” we sing here on Earth, says so, will the world break up the cycle of violence. In the meantime, each Polish Jew should be granted the freedom to choose for herself or himself whether they will or will not become, by virtue of buying their meat or refusing it, the halef — an instrument that transforms life into death.


Dr. Joanna Auron is a new board member of Beit Polska, the Poland-wide Progressive Jewish umbrella organization of Jews affiliated with the European Union for Progressive Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism. She lives and works in Poland.

German Parliament passes law guaranteeing legality of ritual circumcision


The German Parliament passed a law protecting the right of Jewish and Muslim parents to choose a ritual circumcision for their sons, after months of heated debate over efforts to ban the practice.

In all, 434 legislators voted Wednesday for the new law proposed by the federal government; there were 100 votes against, and 46 abstentions.

The decision was applauded by Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who said in a statement that he was “pleased and relieved … The circumcision law finally brings legal security and hopefully brings this highly disastrous debate, which marked this past year, to an end.”

The new law, which introduces restrictions on the practice for the first time, requires that the procedure be carried out by a medically trained and certified practitioner such as a mohel, or ritual circumciser, or by a medical professional, and that anesthetic be used if needed. For a child over 6 months old, the procedure must be done in a hospital.

The campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a Muslim minor was a criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom.

Graumann said in his statement today that the law provided a sense of security that Jews and Muslims could continue to practice their faith in Germany. “In my view, the recent debate was also a tolerance test for our society. And I am very glad that we have passed the test.”

European rabbis protest circumcision bans, plan to lobby


The Conference of European Rabbis will lobby against recent circumcision bans by advocating legislation supporting the practice.

This week, hospitals in Switzerland and a province of Austria announced that they would stop allowing ritual circumcision.

The German lower house of parliament passed a non-binding resolution last week to protect the religious circumcision of infant boys after a district court ban on the practice outraged Muslims and Jews.

“Our fears that the court ruling in Cologne, Germany, could have a knock-on effect across Europe are now being realized,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis. “We must send out the clearest possible message that campaigners against infant circumcision are themselves threatening the human rights of our children in the most fundamental way.”

Rabbinic leaders in Austria and Switzerland have already begun the advocacy process.

“We are working with the government and hope to achieve a commitment for developing specific legislation,” said Chaim Eisenberg, chief rabbi of Vienna.

On Tuesday, Gov. Markus Wallner of the Vorarlberg province in Austria ordered doctors to stop performing infant circumcision for religious reasons until the legal status of the procedure is clarified.

“This is a subject that has to be regulated countrywide,” he said.

The French news agency AFP reported that the children’s hospital in Graz, the capital of the southeastern province of Styria, also has ceased scheduling infant circumcisions.

On Monday, U.S. military doctors in Germany declared that they would continue to perform ritual circumcision.

Rabbis to meet in Berlin to protest circumcision ban


Jewish religious leaders will hold an international meeting in Berlin on Tuesday to discuss how to respond to a German court ruling against performing circumcision on baby boys, which also sparked protests from Muslims and Christians in Germany.

A court in the western city of Cologne caused an uproar in June by ruling in the case of a Muslim boy who suffered bleeding after such an operation that circumcision causes bodily harm and should only be performed on males old enough to give consent.

The head of the Conference of European Rabbis told Reuters on Monday that it was part of a trend to limit religious freedom in Europe that was targeting Jewish and Muslim traditions such as circumcision and the religious slaughter of animals for meat.

“We see this decision by a German court in the context of a new European intolerance towards other religions,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, the Swiss-born chief rabbi of Moscow and organizer of the meeting to be held in Berlin on Tuesday.

He cited a Swiss ban on building new minarets on mosques, a French ban on women wearing Islamic veils in public and a failed Dutch bid to outlaw kosher and halal meat prepared by Jewish and Muslim butchers as other examples of legislation inspired by resentment at growing Muslim immigration.

Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant leaders in Germany denounced the Cologne verdict as an infringement of religious freedom.

Germany’s foreign minister also spoke out, arguing tolerant modern societies such as Germany should permit such faith-based traditions. Turkey protested too, while the U.N. special rapporteur on religious freedom called the ruling “nonsense”.

Germany is home to about 4 million Muslims and 120,000 Jews.

The German ambassador to Israel appeared before a panel of its parliament on Monday to try to ease concerns the ruling, which he referred to as a “particularly sensitive” issue after the Nazi Holocaust, an Israeli statement said.

INFANTS

Ambassador Andreas Michaelis told the Diaspora Affairs Committee that the Cologne ruling pertained to only that region and that three German political parties were “advancing legislation to anchor the right to circumcision”, it said.

The statement released by the Israeli committee quoted Michaelis as saying: “Clearly, the subject of a ruling on the issue of banning circumcision is particularly sensitive in Germany, because of its guilt for the Holocaust.”

“But it is important to emphasize that the Jewish communities in Germany are growing and thriving,” it said.

Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon, the committee chairman, said at the session that “circumcision is one of the foundations of Judaism and the last time it was restricted was in Germany at its darkest hour”.

The Nazis killed 6 million Jews across Europe during World War Two, in addition to perpetrating legal and other forms of persecution against them for being members of their faith.

Jews usually circumcise male infants eight days after birth while the time for Muslim circumcision varies according to family, religion and country.

Rabbi Goldschmidt was speaking from Israel where he had also addressed parliament on the issue and said he hoped Germany might use legislation to get round the Cologne court ruling.

The Cologne court, which took action after the doctor who treated the boy for bleeding notified police, did not recommend a minimum age for circumcision.

A jurist involved in the debate, professor Holm Putzke from Passau University, says many doctors object to circumcisions that are not medically necessary, but he did not know whether other German courts would copy Cologne’s ruling.

Goldschmidt, whose organization represents about 700 rabbis, said he had witnessed many circumcisions on baby boys and adults – “and the older you get, the bigger surgery it is, needing more stitches and healing more slowly”.

Goldschmidt added that many health organizations recommended circumcision to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, while it was very widespread in the United States among non-Muslim and non-Jewish families.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Alison Williams

Proposed Dutch ban on ritual slaughter is unfair, ill advised


Animal rights or Jewish rites? That is the question this week before the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the Dutch parliament, as it considers a bill that effectively would prohibit shechitah, the Jewish ritual slaughter of animals.

According to the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, in 1674 the first Ashkenazi Jew who settled in The Hague was a kosher butcher. Well over three centuries later the Dutch parliament, seated in The Hague, may soon send all the kosher butchers packing.

The minuscule Party for the Animals has introduced a bill to ban animal slaughter without prior stunning. While the proposal is in the spirit of defending animal rights and does not represent any anti-Jewish intent, the brunt would be borne by the Dutch Jewish community of nearly 50,000 people.

Such an unjust result should not surprise anyone, since the premise of the bill itself is unjust. Jewish law commands humane treatment of animals, and several scientific studies have shown that shechitah is indeed humane. According to a 2004 peer-reviewed paper, “Physiological Insights Into Shechita,” by Dr. Stuart Rosen of Imperial College in London, “shechitah is a painless and humane method of animal slaughter.”

Given the general use of stunning in non-ritual slaughter in the Netherlands and the wide acceptance of anesthetic stunning as permissible for Muslim ritual slaughter, the proposed law would be a de facto ban only on Jewish ritual slaughter, which does not allow for stunning under any condition.

The Party for the Animals says that “The European Court of Human Rights has determined that forbidding unanaesthetised ritual slaughter does not contravene the right to freedom of religion.” This argument oversimplifies the specific issues and narrow applicability of the Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v. France case, which concerned the demand of a haredi Orthodox Jewish group for a shechitah facility separate from the existing facility in France under the supervision of the chief rabbi of France when the possibility existed of importing meat from a slaughterhouse of the same haredi Orthodox group in Belgium.

In other words, the party claims that banning shechitah in the Netherlands would not infringe on religious freedom if kosher meat can be imported from Belgium.

This line of reasoning leads to two obvious and disturbing questions that Dutch parliamentarians should ask themselves: May we indirectly discriminate against Dutch Jews as long as Belgium does not do the same? How available would fresh kosher meat be to Dutch Jews if all European countries were to adopt the position that it could be imported from a neighboring country?

It is a safe assumption that approval in the Netherlands would encourage animal rights activists to promote similar measures in other European parliaments. The potential for a domino effect should not be underestimated. According to a Belgian animal rights group, a 2006 poll showed that 72 percent of Belgians supported a ban on ritual slaughter without prior stunning.

Switzerland provides a vivid example of the power of European animal rights groups. In 2002, the Swiss government tried to do the right thing and remove the ban on shechitah that had been in place since 1893. The reaction of animal rights groups was fast and furious. They launched a campaign to ban even the import of kosher meat (using the same popular referendum process that in 2010 led to a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland.)

Faced with increasing popular support for the anti-import campaign, the Swiss Jewish community itself urged the government to back off and settle for a reaffirmation of the status quo. They rightly feared ending up with no kosher meat at all.

Aside from the potential practical consequences, the Dutch bill’s adoption would indirectly, but indisputably, convey a message of intolerance for traditional Judaism and for those who observe Jewish dietary laws. Dutch Jews, regardless of their observance of dietary laws, would be made to feel as second-class citizens.

In the 1581 Act of Abjuration, the Dutch declared independence from Spain, demanding “some degree of liberty, particularly relating to religion.” The practice of religious tolerance made the Netherlands a magnet for oppressed Jews from elsewhere in Europe.

Members of today’s Dutch parliament should be guided by their founding fathers’ championing of religious freedom, the Dutch tradition of religious tolerance and a commitment not to forsake that first kosher butcher who came to The Hague.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author most recently of “Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype.”)

Sacramento PBS TV affiliate won’t run anti-Semitism documentary


David Hosley thinks a scene in which a group of devious Jews slash the throat of a young boy in a ritual slaughter to cull his blood for Passover matzah is not the type of thing that should be shown on television.

Yitzhak Santis thinks it’s exactly what we should be seeing. Santis is the director of Middle Eastern affairs for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

But Hosley is the general manager of a TV station, the PBS affiliate KVIE in Sacramento. So his word goes.

Hosley passed on running the documentary, “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence,” which most Public Broadcasting stations ran in early January, including Los Angeles’ KCET, which ran it on Jan. 8. The film, narrated by Judy Woodruff, provides a history of the hatred of Jews in the Christian West and Muslim East, accompanied by historical cartoons depicting the Jew as “Christ killer,” bloodsucker, ravisher of virgins and plotter of world domination.

Hosley defended his decision, which he said was a difficult one and came only after input from a board of station employees, professors and local religious leaders, including a rabbi, imam and Christian ministers.

“I am interested in the topic, but I’m looking for a program that lives up to its title and is well made,” said Hosley, a documentary filmmaker himself and the station’s general manager for the past eight years.

Hosley said the film, produced by Andrew Goldberg, was journalistically problematic. He claimed that its rapid cuts and interviews with unseen, off-screen questioners left it unclear if the young Arabs being questioned were stating their heartfelt opinions or repeating stories they’d heard. He also complained that the film spent far too long revisiting the history of European anti-Semitism in the 20th century. As for the ritual slaughter scene — an excerpt from a Syrian TV drama — he and his panel felt it was blunt, gory and the message could have been made without the depiction of a boy’s throat being slashed.

Hosley said his panel told him the film would do “more harm than good” for the relationships among Sacramento’s various religious groups.

“I’m very familiar with this program and I couldn’t disagree more,” said Santis of Hosley’s argument. “If you really want to understand the incitement that is being made in Arab and Muslim media, the fact that it is so dramatic and gruesome really demonstrates the level of demonization of Jews that’s going on. I have a copy of that [clip] and I’ve shown it to audiences here and people do close their eyes and I have heard gasps.

“I use it as a wake-up call,” Santis said. “This is using 21st century technology to perpetuate the blood libel and people should be made aware of that.”

Along with a bevy of letters both supporting and denouncing the documentary, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler wrote a largely supportive entry on behalf of “Anti-Semitism” on the PBS Web site.

“This struck me as just the thing Public TV ought to be doing,” he wrote in a Thursday, Jan. 11 posting on PBS.org. “It is unlikely that any diverse audience will ever say that you got this subject just right, but producers need to take a shot at it. Its value, I thought, was in explaining the evolution of anti-Semitism, the original Christian and European role and the differences with Islam, and in exposing to American audiences the kind of hate-filled imagery about Jews that is broadcast and publicly stated in many Arab countries that Americans are unaware of and that the American media rarely captures and broadcasts if they see it.”

Hosley said he that it was far from a rebellious act to not run the documentary, as each national program offered is presented at the discretion of the individual affiliate. Hosley estimates he’s rejected more than 100 hours of nonrequired programming over the past year. And of the roughly 50 largest PBS affiliates, 18 did not run “Anti-Semitism” in the time slot PBS central had earmarked for it, if at all.

In place of “Anti-Semitism” Hosley ran a documentary about America’s oil dependence and the nation’s relationship with oil-producing nations.

Time warp again? Take a step toward tradition


When I think back to my bat mitzvah 30-plus years ago, here’s what I remember most: following the photographer’s prompts as I posed against the tree in the synagogue courtyard, standing nervously on the bimah chanting my Torah portion, and giving a speech in which I excoriated President Nixon. I don’t recall how I tied that in with the parsha, but I relished having the congregation laugh at my political barbs. I loved dancing with my friends and hoped that the boy I had secretly admired for months would finally realize what a prize I was and begin to like me in return.

My bat mitzvah was exciting and fun. It even gave me a vague notion of the meaning of Jewish adulthood. My grandfather, who trained me for my bat mitzvah, claimed that back in the 1940s he pioneered bat mitzvahs (at least here in Los Angeles) when he trained my aunt for this rite of passage. My grandfather came to the United States from Europe with visions of a more modern religious life. He was proud to have blazed the trail for bat mitzvahs in the Conservative movement.

So what would he think of his great-granddaughter pushing the clock back and having a bat mitzvah, shared mostly with girlfriends, sans Torah reading? Well, styles in fashion and religion come and go, and over time my husband and I became more committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle.

Just as the peasant look that I wore in the ’70s has returned, so has the Orthodoxy that that my grandfather left behind in Bialystock.

I’m the first to admit that I once would have scoffed at the idea that any daughter of mine (I had been a dues-paying member of NOW, after all) would not read from the Torah at her bat mitzvah. It was too regressive to deserve comment. It took several years until I was willing to entertain the Torah’s views about spirituality. It rankled to learn that some of the ideas were totally, unrepentantly politically incorrect, including notions about men’s and women’s differing roles in public ritual life. But the insights they revealed about human psychology rang true.

It’s very clear to most people unburdened with a master’s in sociology that men and women need different types of nurturing for emotional, spiritual and intellectual health. Yet many academics still kick and scream when you state the obvious (just ask former Harvard President Larry Summers). Men’s obligations to attend minyan, lead services and read from the Torah are all part of this care-and-feeding program for men.

Psychologically, it’s brilliant: men, who tend to lack meaningful male bonding, can get regular doses at their neighborhood minyan every day. Women will bond with other women, minyan or no minyan. Just watch us.

That’s why I didn’t lose sleep that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be a less public affair than her brothers’ bar mitzvahs. Girls are considered to become bat mitzvah at 12, again revealing the Torah’s insight that girls are usually a year ahead of boys in terms of maturity at that age.

Like her brothers, Yael was excited and a little awed at the prospect of becoming responsible for her own actions, for mitzvahs as well as misdeeds, responsible to fast, to pray, to continue to grow spiritually and to contribute her special talents and energy to the community.

We also wanted her bat mitzvah to be more than just an expensive birthday party. Of course we had great food, music, dancing and an art project that the girls made and donated to Chai Lifeline for their Purim baskets. But Yael also prepared by studying a text for several months with a teacher (in her case, me). Together we chose to study the Eishet Chayil, a portion of Proverbs that is traditionally sung in honor of the Jewish woman at the Shabbat table each Friday night.

We plumbed the text and its elucidation, written by a phenomenal rebbetzin in Jerusalem. It was the first time that I had gone beyond a superficial reading of the Eishet Chayil, despite having sung it hundreds of times. Together, Yael and I tried to understand the deeper insights these proverbs reveal about life, about the spiritual potential of the Jewish woman, and about faith. Many of the concepts were beyond the grasp of even the most mature 12-year-old. Still, we soldiered on, and by the end we each shared a sense of accomplishment.

On her big day, Yael spoke with maturity and depth about the concepts of oz and hadar, strength and splendor, for which the Jewish woman is praised in Eishet Chayil. She explained that this is the kind of strength that springs from faith in God and from the courage of one’s convictions.

Listening to her speak with confidence and poise, I was willing to bet that her great-grandfather would have been beaming with pride. True, she may not have stepped up to the bimah with a tallit draped over her shoulder the way her mother had, but she was clearly and purposefully stepping up to Jewish adulthood with joy, pride and faith. And ultimately, that’s what any bat or bar mitzvah should really be about, isn’t it?


Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column @ judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Alter Kayakers make waves in Newport Bay


Every Thursday morning, 11 supremely fit old men come thundering into Newport Bay, rounding up all the good rental kayaks on the Balboa Peninsula and singing at the top of their lungs.

Most are major fundraisers for Heritage Pointe, Orange County’s Home for the Jewish Aging, and they call themselves the Alter Kayakers.

The name was a natural, said Stan Sackler, 70, of Newport Beach, a retired fuel dealer, who was already a member of a Jewish cycling group in Fullerton called Shlemiels on Wheels.

Sackler and Steve Fienberg, 67, of Irvine assembled the group four years ago, and let Howard Weinstein, 72, of Corona del Mar coin the name. They’ve never had a slow moment since.

“I look forward to this all week,” Weinstein said. “I can’t wait for Thursday.”
Not that Weinstein, or any of the other Alter Kayakers, lives in the slow lane the rest of the week.

Weinstein hiked and rode horseback through Patagonia for 18 days last fall. He plays tennis four times a week, works out with a personal trainer twice a week and he’ll have to miss the Alter Kayakers’ February cruise to Mexico because he’ll be in Botswana.

“I figure that if I stay active when I’m 72, I’ll still have a life when I’m 92,” Weinstein said.

The Alter Kayakers stand out for their awesome endurance and robust bearing, and they cram their days with endless bicycling, hiking, tennis, martial arts and river rafting. But no one has to quit when his abilities falter.

Seymour Lobel, 77, a retired auto financier from Corona del Mar, for example, has lost much of his vision. Other members of the Alter Kayakers drive him to Newport Bay each week, and in the water, someone always keeps an eye on his kayak.

Members love to reminisce about their Kern River rafting trip last September, when the raft overturned and all the members were dumped into the churning river’s Class 4 rapids. Stronger members helped stragglers get back onto the raft, and the team spirit that prevailed made even these tough men of steel mist up for a moment.

Two seconds of sober reminiscence passed, and then Weinstein said, “Stan Sackler, wearing a hearing aid, came damn close to getting electrocuted.”

Ephie Beard, 75, a Newport Beach resident of 13 years who owned car auction businesses in Anaheim and Fontana, introduced the Alter Kayakers to whitewater rafting.

“I’d been doing it for 21 years,” he said. But the day the raft flipped, he said, “it was pretty scary for some of those guys.”

But all this running around without performing a few mitzvot is against Alter Kayaker rules.

“We all try to do something for the Jewish community,” said David Stoll, who owns a boat engine business in Newport Beach. “Most of us are Diamond Donors to Heritage Pointe in Mission Viejo. My personal feeling is that you have to pay your Jewish dues. If you don’t pay the community back, it really gets on our nerves.”

Two of the Alter Kayakers aren’t Jewish, but they’re treated like Members of the Tribe. Stan Angermeir, 67, a nursing home operator who lives on Lido Isle, belongs to Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana with his Jewish wife. Wayne Harmon, 69, of Corona del Mar, the other non-Jew in the group, has a serious relationship with a Jewish woman.

“Believe it or not,” joked Stoll, 68, “we made Wayne our treasurer.”

“But we don’t have anything in the treasury,” added Stackler, a former director of the Orange County Jewish Federation.

Every year, the Alter Kayakers hold an awards ceremony.

“Everyone wins first place in something,” Stoll said. “Wayne Harmon won first prize for looking the least Jewish.”

Most of the Alter Kayakers are retired or semiretired professionals or businessmen.

Arthur Friedman, 71, of Balboa was a dermatologist. Sid Field, 77, who lives in Newport Coast, was a dentist. Robert Baker, 64, of Newport Beach and Fienberg were lawyers.

Weinstein was a pharmacist who became a pharmaceutical manufacturer. Harmon was an executive with J.C. Penney. The rest were entrepreneurs.

When they gather, they are sure to sing “Kayakers’ Spirit,” their own anthem, sung to the tune of the “Illini Fight Song.” Field, a University of Illinois alum, wrote the words. The anthem concludes their weekly Thursday ritual, which starts with a 4-mile, one-hour kayak expedition into Newport Bay and progresses to lunch at Newport Landing Restaurant.
“Same seats or we forget the name of the guy next to us,” Sackler explained.

Same menu, too, it turns out: A half portion of Caesar, Cobb or chicken avocado salad. Ironmen feasting on salad fragments?

“Some members are on diets or too cheap to buy a whole salad,” Weinstein said. “One member who shall remain nameless orders a sandwich off the menu, and he is penalized by getting a separate check.”

The Alter Kayakers say they don’t accept new members.

“Our membership is now closed because the group has such good chemistry, and we don’t want to tamper with it,” Fienberg said. “Also, the place we rent kayaks from only has about 11 good kayaks, and more than 11 for lunch is a bit much.”

They also discourage lunch guests.

“You must be mishpachah,” Weinstein said. “You can be a ninth cousin, but you have to be in the family.”

All but one of the Alter Kayakers are married, nearly all to their first wives — Stoll for 42 years, Baker for 41.

“My wife loves it,” Weinstein said. “It gives me an opportunity to socialize with the boys and to go out and exercise.”

There are no greens fees or memberships to eat away at the family budget; it costs $10 to rent a kayak.

So far none of the Alter Kayakers’ wives has taken to renting a kayak of her own.
“My wife came out with me in a tandem in Newport once,” Sackler said, “and loved it as long as I did the paddling.”

Fry the latkes, try the gingerbread


In a second-grade classroom I visited recently, the children were comparing how many presents they were going to receive for Christmas. When they finished, Sarah announced, “I don’t celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Chanukah. We get eight presents every night for eight nights.”

Even for those who were not yet up on their multiplication tables, her total clearly trumped the previous top scorer. It was a valiant attempt to compete with Christmas, and I think it worked on the other children. But she couldn’t fool me. I’ve been there myself, plus I’m a therapist.

Therapists aim to place themselves in their client’s shoes. What is life like for them? What is their subjective experience?

So let’s be a young Jewish child living in North America in the weeks leading up to Dec. 25.

Your best friend, who is not Jewish, lives down the street.

Her parents, who normally won’t allow her to bring anything bigger than a twig or a rock into the house, drag a dark, fragrant, 7-foot fir tree through the front door.

For hours they work to decorate the tree with twinkling and glittering objects.

These normally tidy people fling handfuls of shiny tinsel at the needles, careless of how many fall to the floor, and at the end of this happy ritual one of the grownups balances on a stepladder to place a star atop the tree.

This unusual activity is in preparation for a visit from a man traveling from the North Pole in a sleigh drawn by reindeer.

Everything about him is out of the realm of ordinary experience. He wears a red suit decorated with white fur, lands on their roof and enters their house through their chimney. In exchange for a simple offering of cookies and a glass of milk, he delivers to them exactly the presents their hearts desire (as long as his magical list shows that they have been “nice”).

He lovingly places tiny red-and-white-striped candy canes and small gifts in a sock with their name on it pinned to the fireplace, and places the larger items under the tree.

Where do all these gifts come from? They were made and wrapped by happy, highly industrious elves.

What is your experience beyond your friend’s house? A soundtrack of lovely, jaunty songs in anticipation of the man’s visit plays all month everywhere you go. When you go to the store with your mom to buy a present for your teacher, the saleswoman leans over and asks “The Question.” Even if your family buys all their holiday presents online or at the Chanukah boutique at the temple, if you don’t live in Tel Aviv or Monsey, someone will ask, “What do you want Santa to bring you? What did you ask Santa for?”

You aren’t sure what to say to be polite and still protect your pride. Santa doesn’t come to your house not because of the naughty-nice business, but because you don’t celebrate Christmas. You, as a 3-year-old non-Jewish acquaintance of mine says, celebrate “Harmonica.”

For a whole month your life is like the saying, “Don’t think about an elephant.” You can’t help it because the elephants are everywhere.

Now let’s go to your house. The home of no graven images, maybe a few blue-and-white decorations. On the first few nights of Chanukah your family puts pale wax candles in a cold, metal, fork-like object as a tribute to a military victory and something called the miracle of the oil — a story considerably less romantic than the one about three wandering kings following a star to a baby in a manger.

As for Chanukah rituals, there is always some confusion about the proper prayers, the right combination of words and melody, because you don’t hear them all day, every day playing at the mall. Some nights your family might even forget to light the candles.

You host or attend a party or two where you eat latkes, a treat so delicious that you say, like you do about charoset at Passover and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, “Why don’t we have this every week?” You play a gambling game by spinning a little chunk of wood, but no one is quite sure of the rules. Instead of money you use chocolate coins wrapped in foil, each alike, except the ones that are squashed, all a bit waxy when you take a bite, none shaped like trees or stars or snowmen. If you go to a Jewish day school you get to have jelly doughnuts.

All of this is sweet and delightful and you do get a lot of presents, but they are spread out over eight nights, so the getting doesn’t have the majesty of one huge blowout of unwrapping, swooning and delirium. There are only two songs to sing for your holiday, one very straightforward, detailing action by action exactly what you’re doing anyway — “Lalalalalalalala, come light the menorah, let’s have a party, we’ll all dance the hora” — and one about an old rock.

It is tempting to spin this situation for your child: Honey, you are so lucky, you get presents for eight nights!…. We celebrate Chanukah and so many other wonderful holidays all the year through!…. We can buy some fruit and vegetable Christmas ornaments on sale after Thanksgiving and use them to decorate our sukkah next fall!

But these concepts ask your child to stretch her mind to encompass the whole cinematic epic of how wonderful Jewish traditions are and, at the moment, your child isn’t looking at a movie. She is looking at a bright, colorful snapshot, and the snapshot is filled with such potent allure that your words float off into the category of grown-up speak, a category that contains nonsense such as, “You don’t really want that ice-cream cone so close to dinner, you just think you do.”

It’s hard to empathize with people who seem to have everything. Yes, our children have amazingly good lives; yes, they have a stunningly profound religious heritage; yes, their parents are hopelessly devoted. But they don’t have Christmas, and we can do them a kindness by taking a moment in the next few weeks to look at the temporarily dazzling world of Christmas from their perspective.

‘Moishe Houses’ provide post-Hillel hangout for 20-somethings


Say you’re a few years out of college, living with friends and working in a low-paying job for some do-good organization. You don’t go to synagogue, but you miss the camaraderie of your college Hillel, and you like to invite people over for Shabbat meals.

Imagine if someone was willing to pay you to keep doing it?
 
That’s what’s offered by Moishe House, a fast-growing network of subsidized homes for 20-something Jews committed to building Jewish community for themselves and their peers.
The project was launched less than a year ago by The Forest Foundation, a Santa Barbara-based philanthropy. The foundation’s executive director, David Cygielman, 25, says the goal was to give young activist Jews the financial freedom to focus on creative programming designed to reach other young, unaffiliated Jews.

To the people living in these houses, it’s a terrific gift.
 
“We were already having Shabbat dinners three or four times a month and then they came along and said, ‘We’re looking for people doing what you’re doing. Keep it up, and we’ll support you,'” said Jonathan Herzog, 29, who lives in the Seattle house with his sister Norah and two friends.
 
The project is a validation of these young Jews’ efforts to create a Jewish home for an age group they feel gets lost in the communal shuffle.
 
“After college there’s no more Hillel, and they don’t join the Jewish community until they have families,” Cygielman noted.
 
The first Moishe House opened last December in San Francisco. Seattle was next in February, joined quickly by houses in Boston and Los Angeles.
 
New ones are to open in October in Oakland, Washington, Uruguay and Nigeria, and the plan is to have 12 houses up and running by next year.
 
Except for the Nigerian house, which is a one-man outreach operation, they all follow the same formula: Three or four Jews in their 20s receive a rent subsidy of up to $2,500 a month, along with $500 for programming, and are expected to become a communal hub for young Jews by hosting Shabbat meals, card games, Yiddish lessons, film nights, book discussions, neighborhood clean-ups and other social, intellectual and civic-minded activities.
 
Residents say the formula works because it lets young people organize events they themselves would want to attend, rather than having something imposed from above by a synagogue or JCC.
In many ways, it’s the bayit of the 21st century. But unlike those communal Jewish homes of the 1970s and ’80s, which usually were sponsored by Zionist youth groups, residents of Moishe Houses don’t subscribe to a particular ideology.
 
The focus varies according to residents’ interests: The houses in Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco host a lot of poker parties and film nights, while the Boston house is more involved in social action.
 
Houses have great freedom, Cygielman says, so long as they meet the minimum requirements: hosting eight to 12 events a month, making weekly reports, maintaining a Web site and reaching out to young people. Funding can be withdrawn if a house doesn’t perform.
 
“I won’t tell them what’s a wrong program or a right program,” Cygielman said. “I don’t care, so long as they’re building community and lots of people are coming.”
 
Maia Ipp, 24, moved into the San Francisco house in June. She runs a women’s group and a cooking club that is working its way alphabetically through the world’s cuisines.
 
Her parents once lived in a bayit sponsored by Habonim, a Labor Zionist youth group, but Ipp prefers the Moishe House model.
 
“We’re not affiliated with a movement that has a belief system, which frees us to do new, fresh work and engage young adults in ways other movements and campus groups can’t,” she said.
 
One recent evening, the four young residents of the San Francisco house got together for their weekly meeting. They sat around the large table in the dining room, which opens onto a large patio they use for Shabbat dinners and holiday parties.
 
David Persyko, 25, started hanging out at the house soon after it opened.
 
“I found myself really attached to being part of a Jewish community again,” he said. “Some of my fondest memories growing up were from Camp Swig, and coming here, I felt that rush of support I hadn’t felt in 10 years.”
 
He moved in in June and now runs poker night, which draws a group of guys every three weeks to “vent about the women in our lives,” Persyko said.
 
Aaron Gilbert, 24, runs a book club. The books aren’t Jewish, but the participants are, and talking about the books leads to talking about other things.
 
“It’s really intimate. We hang out, catch up on each others’ lives,” he said.
 
The house holds a big Shabbat dinner once a month and sponsors a softball team called the Matzah Ballstars. But the events and programs are secondary to the real draw.
 
“At our core, we’re four people who live in a house and we’re inviting people over. That’s appealing to people like us. It’s not institutional,” said Isaac Zones, 24, national director of the Moishe House network and a founding member of the San Francisco house.
 
On a table in the corner is a silver-toned bust of Zones’ grandfather, a man who founded his business empire with money he won playing poker. Zones makes sure the statue is always there during games.
 
The Moishe House concept is still in its early stages, and some things need to be tweaked. For example, the Los Angeles and Seattle houses are trying to beef up their social action component, while the Boston house is being encouraged to offer more “fun events,” Cygielman said.
 
It’s all part of figuring out what constitutes a Jewish community, or even a Jewish event. Must it be something devoted purely to a Jewish ritual or Zionist goal? Or is it enough to bring together a bunch of Jewish people to shmooze and eat?

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life


In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don’t mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays — on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.

 

We’d All Rather Be in Venice


“What a bunch of shleppers,” my father remarks, his head doing a 180-degree pan as he takes in the view. “Not one of them has anything unique to say. Such
conformists. Just looking at them makes me nauseous.”

I turn to look, so that I, too, can take in the same view. Yes, we’re at the cemetery, looking at a hillside dotted with graves marked with headstones. It’s a quiet, pastoral setting. No one is saying much, except my father, who as usual can’t — or won’t — stop talking. This particular rant has been a perennial, ongoing drama in my family’s life, ever since my mother died.

It’s been two years this week since my mother, Betty Switkes, died, and we still haven’t had the unveiling. Jewish custom dictates that you unveil the headstone a year after the person dies, but my father has not found the right stone or the right words to inscribe on that stone, so she rests in this unmarked grave. People who pass by this spot might suspect the person buried here is a forgotten soul, but nothing could be further from the truth. She is the focus of his obsession.

He explains to me and anyone else who cares to listen: “The stone should tell the world what a unique person she was. Not just her name and her dates, but it should say something about her.”

“How about beloved wife and mother?” I offer.

“No! Every headstone says that. Look around you. Beloved wife and mother. Beloved wife and mother. Dime a dozen. Not at all unique.”

“She was uniquely your wife and my mother.”

“You don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” he stresses.

Actually I do. He doesn’t want to say goodbye. Once we have the unveiling, then what? As long as he can put this final ritual on hold, he can postpone that final farewell.

“When Betty died, half of me died,” he says.

He talks about her: “She did so much with her life. We threw the best parties. She was the greatest hostess. And her charity work. Always volunteering, always helping someone. And her exercise. She was a pioneer. She developed special exercises for the elderly. Seniorcize. I want to put all that on her headstone. So people know who they are dealing with.”

Note the present tense.

“Do you really want the headstone to look like a resume?” I ask. “Besides, everyone who knew her knows what she accomplished. And everyone who didn’t know her never will.”

He doesn’t hear me.

My father has decided on a double headstone, and that makes sense. They shared a bed for 56 years, so they should share a grave.

But that further complicates the problem of finding the appropriate inscription. If there’s a unique inscription on my mother’s side of the stone, then there must be a comparable inscription on my father’s side. It has to be balanced. Maybe the inscription should be about their life together.

“Write one inscription that applies to both of you. Perhaps something about your marriage,” I offer.

His face lights up. I suggest: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”
He rejects it: “Absolutely not. That’s on every ketubbah ever written. C’mon. Think outside the box.”

Here we come to the crux of the problem. Joe Switkes is loud, fun and eccentric. He’s brilliant, expressive and totally unreasonable, a man of action, bold action. And death is the state that has no verb. Talk about irreconcilable differences.

He’s thinking about their marriage and fondly recalls the days they spent at Venice Beach, playing in the sand with their granddaughter.

How about, “We’d rather be in Venice,” I offer.

He laughs.

“That’s good. It takes it away from all this depressing stuff you see around here. I want our headstone to be unique and fun,” he explains.
But then I have second thoughts. When I’m looking at my parents’ grave, I don’t want fun.

He takes another stab at it. How about, “Betty was beautiful and caring, and Joe was smart and humorous.”

I say, “Dad, don’t clutter up the headstone with a lot of adjectives, it’ll read like a profile on JDate.”

He comes back with, “Together they lived a life that was a joy, an adventure and lots of laughs.”

I don’t think so. “Keep it dignified and sparse. Think poetry, not prose.”
Valiantly, the whole family pitches in, making suggestions. My husband suggests, “Beauty and the Beast.” Mom was like Belle – beautiful, well read and independent. Dad is like the Beast, a true prince with a heart of gold, but one must first deal with his hideous temper.

We all howl with laughter. It seems perfect, but then Dad has second thoughts. Beauty and the Beast strikes him as juvenile, and he’s not convinced that all of their friends will “get it.”

I turn to Ecclesiastes and read this beautiful passage:

theellenloop@hotmail.com.

PASSOVER: Modern Causes Add Meaning to Seder


 

What is your personal Egypt this year? What do you talk about at the Passover seder when you consider freedom? Passover is a time for remembrance, but it is also a time for making memories relevant, and at many seders in Los Angeles, there is a practice of incorporating meaningful events of the day into the ritual dinner. In light of the past year’s political trials and natural disasters, it’s not hard to imagine a list of today’s plagues, which are visited not just on our enemies in the tradition of Passover, but potentially on us all: flooding, war, terrorism, dependency on oil, famine, fast-spreading viruses, fallen leaders … and the list goes on.

Making memories relevant means incorporating meaningful events of the day into the ritual dinner.

“How do we transform the seder?” Rabbi Lee Bycel asked two-dozen rabbis of all denominations at a recent pre-Passover meeting sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “The seder is a time of challenge and controversy. It’s a time that pushes us with questions. It’s not comfort and convenience and waiting for the meal. For me, what Pesach is about is where are you as human beings? The Pesach story unfolds throughout history; the question is not waiting for God, but are we doing enough?”

As special adviser to the International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian nonprofit, Bycel is devoting much of his time to raising awareness of the ongoing genocide in Darfur and the Sudan, and he told the rabbis that the seder is a time to talk about the genocide, to force everyone to write letters to their senators and representatives, to donate money, to stop the violence.

To that end, the American World Jewish Service has printed up a special Darfur haggadah filled with specific references: “Who knows one?” is answered: “One is the Janjaweed militia…. Four is the deliberate use of rape to destroy and humiliate families…. Six is the over 400,000 people who have already died.”

This modern haggadah will be used at the Seder for Darfur on April 9, as part of the Let My People Sing festival.

The biggest enslavement today?

Addiction, says Rabbi Mark Borevich, the head of Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery facility that treats hundreds of addicts a year.

“I see addiction as the modern-day Egypt, because it’s so pervasive in our community — not just drugs and alcohol, but sex, gambling and pornography,” he says.

Beit T’Shuvah will host three seders for a few hundred people — and at the third one, on Friday night, they will perform their own in-house “Rent”-like musical called “Freedom Song,” about the story of leaving Egypt, then and now. (It will be performed at Beit Teshuva, Friday April 14 and at Craig Taubman’s One Shabbat Morning at Adat Ari El in Valley Village on April 15.)

And it’s not just traditional addiction we need to free ourselves from, Borevich says, but our enslavement to technology and other modern-day ailments. “There’s this constant search for the next good fix. That’s telling me that people are not happy with who they are, and that’s the breeding ground for addiction.”

Some seder leaders apply the personal to the global. David Abel, co-founder of the Jewish Television Network and editor of the managed-growth newsletter The Planning Report, along with his wife, architect Brenda Levin, leads a political Passover liberation seder in their Griffith Park home. They invite as many as 40 guests — a group that reflects the diversity of Los Angeles — Russians, Latinos, Hungarians, Ethiopians, East Indians, Chinese, Armenian, South American and more. Early on Abel asks guests to tell where their grandparents are from.

“This is to show that everyone is sort of an immigrant with a history,” he says.

As the seder progresses, guests read aloud from dozens of excerpts Abel has compiled, including poetry, letters, texts and even NPR audio clippings that “show that this struggle to move from slavery to freedom is a universal aspiration,” he says.

Vanessa Paloma, a performance artist who specializes in the connection between spiritual traditions and contemporary expression, leads a pre-Passover seder workshop on April 9 to teach people how to create their own personal liberation. What do you want to liberate yourself from? A bad relationship with food? Low self-esteem? An unhealthy relationship? She addresses these issues through the seder rituals: Kadesh would be about sanctifying oneself; Urchatz, washing without saying the blessing, is cleansing yourself without speaking; and Maggid, the portion of the evening where you tell the story of Egypt, people journal their own burdens, and create a movement — “of liberation so that we can actually physically reenact what the liberation will look like.”

What’s most important is to use the seder to ask questions — real questions — says Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, professor of literature at the University of Judaism.

“We ask but we’re not asking,” she told the Board of Rabbis. “How many of us, do we ever really answer it? What is a real answer?”

 

A Poem On the Meaning of Passover

“Musings on Seder night.

How Different this night is from all other nights, we asked.

And most of us grew up and we won’t ask anymore and others go on
asking all their lives, like those who ask
“How are you?” or “What’s the time?” and go on walking,
without waiting for an answer.

How different all night, like an alarm clock whose ticking quiets and puts to sleep.

What’s different? Everything’s different. The difference is God.
Musings on Seder night. The Torah speaks of four sons:
one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who doesn’t know how to ask.

But it doesn’t mention one who is good nor does it mention one who loves. And that’s a question that has no answer and if there was an answer I wouldn’t want to know it. I, who was all those sons
in different combinations, I lived my life, the moon shone on me needlessly, the sun came and went, and Passover holidays
passed without an answer.

What is different. The difference is God, and his prophet, Death.”

— A reading from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s “God’s Change, Prayers Remain Open Forever,” from his 2000 book, “Open Closed Open” (translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld).

‘Voodoo’ Jew Finds Love, Truth in Haiti


“Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti” by Kathie Klarreich (Nation Books).

According to a Creole proverb, truth is like oil in water; it always comes to the surface. Kathie Klarreich’s first book, a memoir of her years in Haiti, is a tale of truths — personal, religious and political.

The title, “Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti,” comes from the nickname given to her by the kids in her Port-au-Prince neighborhood. In Haitian tradition, women take on the first names of their husbands; in her case she was named for the dreadlocks of her boyfriend (who later became her husband). She also refers to herself as a “Voodoo Jew.”

The book is timely reading as Haitians took part in long-postponed national elections on Feb. 7, aimed at restoring democracy, two years after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Klarreich’s impressionistic writing goes far in explaining the ongoing political turbulence that rocks the Caribbean nation — once known as the Pearl of the Antilles, it is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

On the eve of the elections, Klarreich was in Haiti, reporting for Time magazine. In an e-mail she wrote, “It’s sort of bittersweet to be covering elections again, seeing how much people want change and how slow it’s been to come.”

From the time of the author’s first visit to Haiti in 1986, the place got under her skin in ways that go beyond words. Something about the warmth and graciousness of the people, the landscape, the vibrancy and color of the place and the music touched her in a profound way. A second visit in 1988, with the goal of spending three weeks researching handicrafts for her San Francisco shop, turned into a stay of more than 10 years.

The book opens in September 1988 with gunfire, when Klarreich found herself a front-row witness to a coup d’etat, the first of several she’d experience. Information was scarce, and she was not sure what had happened or where to find safety, but following her instincts she made her way to a friend’s home. She was then unsure whether to remain in Haiti, and it was her worried mother, who in a long-distance phone call advised either to “get involved or get out,” who convinced her to stay.

Another friend suggested that since she was in the midst of history being made, that she try reporting. She made contacts, wrote and rewrote, and got published in the San Francisco Chronicle and broadcast on Pacifica Radio. After a quick and determined study of what makes a good reporter, she took on more assignments and soon found that major newspapers, magazines and television networks were calling her. As years passed, she felt less the foreign journalist and more as though she were recounting the history of her own country.

Soon after the 1988 coup, she went with a friend to hear a traditional music group perform at the National Theater, and when she first saw the drummer, “it was as though someone sliced a vein from my heart into the center of his.” Several months later, she met Jean Raymond and, ever aware of their differences in culture, education and economics, fell deeply in love. Their first son was born on the same day as another coup d’etat, in 1991, while they were in San Francisco. Jean Raymond felt displaced in America, homesick for Haiti, so he returned and she joined him later on.

Klarreich writes with honesty and humility, aware of the privilege of her upper middle-class background and ability — not shared by her Haitian friends — to leave at any point if the dangers, frustrations, government corruption and violence were to become too difficult to bear. She writes of adjusting to weeks with only 10 random hours of electricity, being mistaken for a CIA agent, losing a dear friend to assassination and interviewing political leaders. The memoir is also the story of her self-discovery as she pushes herself “to pare down the clutter” of her life.

Her curiosity about all things Haitian led her to experience the voodoo tradition. She attended a five-day traditional ceremony and while dancing, was surprised at her writhing bodily reactions, as though spirits possessed her.

“I was not a nonbeliever, but at each foreign juncture with the spiritual, I had only my Jewish spiritual upbringing as a frame of reference. This didn’t fit in that box. It didn’t fit anywhere. No feelings any rabbi evoked though any sermon I’d ever heard came close to reaching this kind of religious experience,” she writes.

Her husband is a practitioner of voodoo and she is not, although she says that learning about voodoo has helped her to better understand the country and it history. In their home in Haiti, she would light Shabbat candles, with his ritual items nearby. She now lives mostly in Florida, where her 14-year-old son goes to school, and she travels frequently to their home in Haiti, where her husband is primarily based.

In a telephone interview from Key Biscayne as she was about to leave for Haiti, she explains that voodoo is very much misunderstood, promoted by Hollywood as having to do with sticking pins into dolls and some sort of black magic. She’s pleased that her openness “allowed me to just observe and take in what it was. In this post-9/11 world, we have to come to other people’s religions with open minds and not be judgmental.”

Klarreich, 50, grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland where her father served as a city councilman, and she says that one of the gifts her family gave her was travel, exposing her to many places from a young age. Her Jewish upbringing prepared her for her adventure in Haiti, and “for life in general. My parents set the stage for me to feel confident in making decisions and gave me space to do so.”

Now, when she looks at photos of her earlier self in Haiti, she sees how much her white skin makes her stand out, but she always felt accepted. Most Haitians, she says, don’t know much about Judaism, or Middle East politics.

“It’s a very isolated island, with its own language,” she said. “I’ve often thought this to be part of their larger political problem, that they’re so insular.”

Her mother suggested that she call the book “What’s a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” The book took her about a decade to write, with several rewrites until she found a way to tell the story, which she does well. She begins each chapter with a Creole proverb — like “Love turns your head around” and “The lamp won’t light without a wick” — as Haitians invoke idiomatic sayings frequently.

“It’s part of Haitians’ charm; they see the world with humor, with joie de vivre,” she says. “We hear awful things about violence and poverty, but 8 million people get up and make do, often under great duress, and they do it with laughter and grace and creativity. I have tremendous respect for the way they have overcome so many difficulties.”

For Klarreich, Haiti remains a country “full of unpredictable flaws and wonders.” Each time she arrives, she’s enchanted anew.

“Haiti has taught me that there is not only one way to look at a situation, but infinite ways to create a solution, with humor and devotion, heart and determination as key ingredients.”

 

Few Females Filling Mohel Role in U.S.


When Dr. Debra Weiss-Ishai watched her son’s brit milah two years ago, she thought to herself, I could do this better. Not just technically, although as a pediatrician she had done numerous medical circumcisions. She felt she could bring a warmth and spiritual beauty to the ritual in ways her old-school mohel, who she said “rushed through” the ceremony, did not.

Last April, Weiss-Ishai completed the Reform movement’s Berit Mila program, an intensive 35-hour certification course for physicians and nurse-midwives at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. She now has performed seven or eight Jewish ritual circumcisions in the San Francisco Bay area.

Weiss-Ishai spends hours preparing for each brit milah, working with the family to make sure the ceremony fits their needs, determining the level of Hebrew they want, incorporating friends and relatives and personalizing it with readings and poetry. Doing this work is her way of helping to ensure Jewish continuity, she said.

Weiss-Ishai is one of just a few female mohels in the United States. There are about 35 Reform female mohels and just four trained by the U.S. Conservative movement, as well as a handful who learned outside the United States.

It’s not surprising that throughout Jewish history mohels have been men. Circumcision is, after all, a guy thing. Beyond the obvious anatomical requirements, it’s something the Torah commands a father, not a mother, to do for his son on the eighth day of life.

What is surprising, however, is that while half of all new non-Orthodox rabbis and cantors in this country are women, few women are choosing to become mohels.

Yet unlike rabbis and cantors, there is no halachic prohibition against female mohels. Every Orthodox authority consulted for this story agreed on that point, although most asked not to be quoted. Jewish law states only that if a Jewish male is present, it’s preferable that he do the brit milah.

“It’s a custom, a strong custom, but there’s no law except that the mohel be Jewish,” said Rabbi Donni Aaron, director of the Reform Berit Mila program. “People assume it’s not according to halacha, but they just haven’t encountered it. Some people think it’s a man’s job, that it just feels weird” for a woman to do a brit milah.

Unlike physicians, mohels in the United States are not regulated, and technically, anyone can act as mohel if the parents trust him or her to perform the operation on their infant son. Traditionally, it’s been a profession passed on from father to son; even today, Orthodox and many Conservative mohels learn by apprenticing with a senior mohel, usually in Israel.

The Reform and Conservative movements set up their training programs because there were so few traditionally trained mohels available to serve the non-Orthodox community. The non-Orthodox movements, especially the Reform movement, needed their own mohels because Orthodox mohels generally are reluctant to circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother.

The Reform program, which has trained about 300 mohels since it began in 1984, and the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, which has trained about 75, both accept only physicians or nurse-midwives who already are experts in medical circumcision. The programs teach them the relevant halacha, rituals and textual background to perform a Jewish brit milah.

The training is similar, though Conservative mohels generally won’t circumcise the son of a non-Jewish mother unless the parents intend to convert the child.

Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), said there was no problem admitting women to the Conservative program, which is run jointly by JTS and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

“We considered it, we deliberated it and then we said, frankly it’s easier to train women for this role than to count them in the minyan,” Roth recalled. “We know it hasn’t been done historically, but there’s no earthly reason why we shouldn’t.”

The mohelot interviewed for this article said most clients choose them because of their reputation, not because they’re female.

“It works both ways,” said Ilene Gelbaum, a certified nurse-midwife in Anaheim, who became a mohel in 1986 and has since circumcised both her grandsons.

“Some people are pretty up front when they call,” she said. “They say they chose me because I’m female. And sometimes, you do what you think is a beautiful service and the grandfather comes up to you afterward and says you shouldn’t be doing it because you’re a woman.”

Dr. Lillian Schapiro said she “braced for a backlash” when the Atlanta Jewish Times ran a front-page story on her four years ago. It never came.

“There was one op-ed against me, but I didn’t feel personally attacked,” she said.

Gelbaum wasn’t as lucky. Beginning with a lecture she delivered in 1990 at the American College of Midwives conference in Atlanta, she’s been steadily targeted by the anti-circumcision movement. Protesters showed up at that first lecture bearing placards calling her a baby mutilator, she’s been vilified online and in print, and worst of all, she said, “They called my house, they talked to my children. They said, ‘Do you know what your mother does?'”

Gelbaum said she was targeted because she was so public. Although she’s now stopped lecturing about circumcision, she said it’s still not easy to talk about the campaign against her.

“I knew these people personally,” she said quietly. “And how much of it is anti-Semitism? Not only am I the vocal midwife, I’m the Jewish midwife.”

Female mohels said that as physicians, they feel comfortable doing circumcisions, and want to bring a Jewish aspect to what they already are doing.

Dr. April Rubin, an OB-GYN in Washington, had been doing circumcisions for more than 20 years when she became more observant. Two years ago, she completed the Conservative Brit Kodesh program, and has since done about 70 britei milah.

Some traditionally trained mohels look askance at these physician-mohels.

“They really don’t have a very solid background in the halacha,” said Rabbi Paul Silton, a Conservative rabbi in Albany, N.Y., who apprenticed with an Orthodox mohel in Jerusalem. “They’re physicians who want a sideline in brit milah, and I feel that’s unfortunate.”

The Conservative program requires applicants to be practicing members of Conservative congregations and ritually observant. The Reform program requires applicants to belong to any congregation, Reform or not, but makes no stipulations about ritual observance.

Some people choose a female mohel because of her gender, like Bay Area resident Nicole Sorger, who asked Weiss-Ishai to circumcise her son last November.

“The idea of having an old, bearded man was disconcerting, not being very religious,” Sorger said. Having Weiss-Ishai do the ceremony “broke up the idea of it being a male event, a patriarchal celebration. It made the ceremony so much more accessible to me.”

Dr. Laurie Radovsky, a Conservative mohel in St. Paul, Minn., circumcised her son 11 years ago in rural Wisconsin because no mohels lived nearby. Nine years later, she became a mohel herself.

Her male rabbi told her that women bring “a gentleness, a sensitivity” to the ceremony, but she said there are other advantages.

“With men, when you talk about circumcision, there’s an instinctive protecting of the genitals,” she said. “And as a mother, I can empathize with that mother’s feelings and tenderness toward that child. I can reassure her, perhaps more than a male mohel can.”

At the end of every brit milah, “sometimes surreptitiously,” Radovsky said she kisses the baby’s head to welcome him into the Jewish community.

“I really feel I can make a difference in the world,” she said.

 

The Lowdown on Ritual and Worship


“Why are Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur so important to my Jewish partner? He almost never attends services the rest of the year, isn’t observant and doesn’t even know what he believes about God. Yet, at this time of year, he insists on attending services. What’s the big deal with these holidays?”

There are both “official” and “unofficial” answers to these questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the unofficial explanations are often the more significant ones. The official answers (to which I’ll return shortly) speak in terms like judgment, sin, repentance, life and death. The unofficial answers have something to do with the complicated puzzle of American Jewish identity.

For many Jews in this country, attending High Holiday services (particularly, the first evening service of Yom Kippur) is a way of affirming that we still are part of the Jewish people, a way of demonstrating that we haven’t yielded to assimilation or broken the ancient chain of the Jewish people’s survival and continuity. Being with our people at services says: No matter how far we may have drifted from active involvement with Judaism, we’re still proud to be Jews. We still care about being Jewish — even if we’re not very religious and are not sure how we feel about the content of those services. Many times, our participation also says that we’re still connected with the values of parents and grandparents, for whom our attendance (or absence!) is a very powerful symbol.

Notice that these “unofficial” answers have little to do with theology or even with the religious significance of the prayers and rituals. That’s because for many American Jews, their “Jewishness” is not first and foremost a matter of religion. Many American Jews will tell you that their Jewish identity is primarily ethnic or cultural or communal. They speak about Jewish holiday customs or Jewish ethical values or a feeling of connection they associate with being Jewish that seems, to them, to be somewhat separate from the Jewish religion. What’s important for understanding this High Holiday commitment is that in the mind of your loved one, the urgency of attending services may not be primarily about the religious significance of the ritual.

Nonetheless, if you will be joining your partner to sit through an unusually long and crowded synagogue service, you might want to know a little more about what to expect and what the ritual means officially. For most Jews, the term, “High Holidays” is the title given to a period of 10 days that stretch between the holy day of Rosh Hashanah — which means, literally, head of the year — and Yom Kippur — the day of atonement. Both holy days have their earliest roots in the Torah, although the name, “Rosh Hashanah,” was not used until significantly later in Jewish history.

Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Jewish New Year (on our calendar, the coming year is 5766) and with it a period of profound self-examination and repentance. It is, therefore, a day of joyous celebration balanced against a humbling and solemn consideration of how well (or poorly) we have used the gift of the previous year. Tradition teaches that God judges each of us individually and our community as a whole on Rosh Hashanah. Tradition also teaches that the result of God’s judgment will be a matter of life and death (either figurative or literal, depending on your theological orientation). Our prayers, songs and rituals, therefore, focus on confessing the ways in which we’ve gone astray, asking forgiveness for occasions on which we’ve missed the mark, and committing ourselves to acts of repentance (teshuvah).

We go through this process collectively. We ask for forgiveness and repent almost exclusively in the first person plural! This use of “we” vs. “I” reflects Judaism’s emphasis on community. Our first concern is how well the Jewish community as a whole has fulfilled its covenant with God. Our first responsibility is to live in such a way that we help the community be the kind of holy people God has challenged us to become. Of course, our Rosh Hashanah observances also celebrate the possibility of a new beginning that comes with the new year — God’s gift to us if we engage in this cleansing process with sincerity.

Some distinctive observances to watch and listen for on Rosh Hashanah: the extensive ritual for sounding of the shofar during the morning service, which is mandated by the Torah and serves as a deeply moving call to renewed awareness and action; eating apples and honey for a sweet year, and greeting others by expressing the hope that they will be judged for a shanah tovah. Depending on the congregation you join, you also may participate in tashlich ceremony in which we symbolically cast away our sins by throwing bread crumbs (or other, less traditional things such as little stones) into a body of water.

Yom Kippur begins in the evening 10 days later. Its mood is one of deep solemnity, contrition and humility. According to tradition, the judgments begun on Rosh Hashanah are sealed and finalized on Yom Kippur. Because Leviticus (23:27) instructs that self-affliction should be part of this day dedicated to repentance, most Jews will observe a complete fast for at least part of the day. In fact, many will spend almost the entire day at the synagogue engaged in fasting, prayer, reflection and repentance. The observance ends with the setting of the sun, a final sounding of the shofar — dramatically marking the end of this intensely spiritual day and as a reminder of ancient practice in the Jerusalem Temple–and then, gatherings to break the fast together.

Yom Kippur’s opening evening service centers on an ancient formula known as Kol Nidre, which absolves us of vows and oaths we may take between this Yom Kippur and the next one. I suspect that the prayer is revered as much for its haunting and powerful music as for its somewhat complicated message.

While Yom Kippur services vary, all will focus on communal confessions and introspection, requests for forgiveness and the effort to obtain perspective on our present lives by placing them in the context of the past. More specifically, synagogues hold a special Yizkor service to honor loved ones who have died and to gain important insights from both their lives and deaths. Many synagogues also honor the martyrs of the Jewish people throughout history and, again, seek to learn important lessons from the humbling example of their sacrifices. Then, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, the observance concludes with the Neilah, or locking, service — a final chance to repent before the symbolic gates of repentance are closed and locked.

Of course, there are many interesting and important details for which I haven’t had room here. For now, let me be one of the first to wish you a year that is healthy, happy and fulfilling. Shanah tovah!

Article courtesy

Remember Sept. 11 the Jewish Way


I’ve always had a difficult time assimilating tragedy, and although it hit much closer to home for me, Sept. 11 was not much different.

Even though it touched people all around me, and I was definitely affected, it still did not seem as intense or painful as it should have been.

I sought the solace of my friends, and gave it as much as possible, just like everyone else in New York City. And although I knew people who died in the Trade Center, and others who lost close relatives and friends, I still only understood the calamity in my mind. It didn’t really hit my heart the way it hit others’.

Then I found a uniquely Jewish way to relate, and was able to come to personal terms with this tragedy.

Many who died in the Trade Center were never found intact. Outside a hospital in the East 20s, a number of refrigerated containers were set up to hold the various body parts that had been recovered while they awaited DNA testing and proper burial.

Of the nearly 3,000 people who died the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a large number had to have been Jewish. Thus, it was assumed that many of the human pieces in those containers had come from Jewish bodies.

When a Jewish person dies, there is a tradition that someone stay up with the body all night before it is buried, watching over it and saying Tehilim — Psalms. Called shmirah (which literally means guarding), it is a sign of respect for the person who has died. As the days rolled on after Sept. 11, and body parts were recovered, a 24-hour rotation of people began to do shmirah in a tent (or trailer once it got colder) next to those refrigerated containers.

One benefit to freelancing is that I have a flexible schedule, so I often volunteered for a middle-of-the-night shift, from 2-6 a.m. For the bulk of that time, I was alone, saying Tehilim or silently meditating about the tragedy and the real people who had been lost.

Until then, I had mostly focused on the narrow escapes of the living. I had friends who should have been at work in the Trade Center, but weren’t that morning for some strangely miraculous reason or another. Others I know were chased through the streets of downtown by a cloud of smoke and debris as the buildings came tumbling down. Some had even been inside the second tower, or lower down in the first, but thankfully were able to get away safely.

I also knew a young woman, though not a close friend, who was among the Cantor Fitzgerald employees who never made it out. And after Sept. 11, I became friends with a woman who lost her brother that morning. The stories I heard about these people put a personal face on Sept. 11.

Still, despite these personal connections, I still felt less deeply affected by Sept. 11 than I should have, until I engaged in this Jewish ritual.

Jewish mourning practices are designed more for the living survivors than for those who have passed on. The process of moving from the intense seven days of shiva, to the less stringent 30 of shloshim, to the even more relaxed year of mourning following the loss of a parent, allow the survivor to accept the pain of loss and ease back into regular life.

The three weeks that lead up to Tisha B’Av, however, play out differently. As observant Jews approach this day of mourning for the loss of the two temples in Jerusalem, there’s an increase in the intensity of mourning. This allows us to acquire and assimilate a feeling of this loss, even though we never experienced it.

In much the same way, the shmirah I did after Sept. 11 allowed me to feel more compellingly the tragedy of that day. This year, on Sept. 11, I will again be saying Tehilim for the memory of those we lost. I invite you all to do the same.

May all of their neshomot (souls) have an aliyah (uplifting).

Joel Haber (

L.A. Authors Break the Heroine Mold


 

California purists who like to shop local, travel local and eat local will have no problem reading local. Among the season’s offerings of new books are several impressive works by Los Angeles-based writers.

Although the many writers at work in this city choose different genres, four novelists — Maggie Anton, Merrill Joan Gerber, Lynn Isenberg and Rochelle Krich, all fine storytellers — will be particularly visible this fall, reading from and talking about their new books at venues around town (for listings, see facing page). Two of the novels are contemporary tales set in and around Los Angeles, another is a story that takes place in Florida in the 1950s and the fourth is a historical novel set in medieval France. Anton’s is a debut novel and the others are by veteran writers.

The novels are so different in tone, style and theme that it’s difficult to identify any common L.A. sensibility, but these women are writing within miles of one another, probably looking out over some of the same landscape.

As “Six Feet Under” ends its run, Isenberg’s “The Funeral Planner” (Red Dress Ink, $12.95) breaks new ground as a novel involving bereavement. It’s the story of building a business, with doses of romance, challenges of friendship and family, with old rivalries and new partnerships. The book is full of humor and has been the spark of a new business.

Since writing the novel, Isenberg, a media developer, took her idea of planning one’s own very personal funeral in advance — at the heart of the novel — and turned it into an actual business, Lights Out Enterprises. This is a case of fiction inspiring reality. She wrote the book soon after her own brother and father died a year apart to the day, causing her to have lots of grief to deal with — along with much experience with funerals.

The novel’s main character, Madison Banks is an L.A.-based overachiever, a risk taker determined to build a successful business before she dies. She comes up with the idea for a personalized funeral ceremony after sitting through a dreadful canned eulogy for a dear friend, given by a minister who never met the 31-year-old woman. Her business plan is to work with individuals and their families ahead of time to create funerals that are celebrations of life rather than a mourning of death: She doesn’t seek to eliminate the grieving process but, rather, hopes to influence the way people deal with grief.

Banks always wears a watch that has the internal mechanisms showing through the Lucite face: She likes to know how all things work. Not a practicing religious Jew, she does have an affinity for ritual, Jewish and self-invented ones — they give her a sense of stability. She realizes that most of the people working in the funeral business are the sons and daughters of others who’ve worked in this business; they think largely in traditional terms, while she is able to think, so to speak, out of the box. Her business is geared to baby boomers who “want to validate their lives by giving meaning to their deaths.” Although the business initially fails, she remains determined and is open to new interesting developments in her life. The novel, from a publisher specializing in chick lit, makes for entertaining reading, and might inspire some readers to look up Lights Out.

The author, a self-described avant-garde content creator, producer and narrative marketing strategist, is the author of two previous novels, including “My Life Uncovered.” Her television credits include “Youngblood” and “I Love You to Death,” and she is the founder of the Hollywood Literary Retreat.

No question, the young women in the vintage photograph — seen peeking out the windows through Venetian blinds — on the jacket of “Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties” by Gerber (Terrace Books, $24.95) are looking at guys. And they’re trying not to be seen, while hoping to be seen.

This is a novel of college life, set at a time when college girls wear leather-heeled loafers and rarely go out without girdles. These coeds set their hair in large foam rollers, live in a strict-curfew dormitory where “four feet on the floor” is the rule when men visit and follow the dictum: Marry before graduation or be lost forever. “Glimmering Girls” is a period piece and also a coming-of-age story, particularly for Francie, a transplanted New Yorker who is one of the few Jews at the University of Florida.

Francie is also unusual in that she’s not at all desperate — like many of her classmates — to become engaged before graduation. While her roommate reads Bride’s magazine, she writes a paper on D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” During her senior year, she accepts an invitation to move out of the strict-curfew dormitory with two more worldly girlfriends into a house off-campus, sharing it with the boyfriend of one and a pair of male twins.

She doesn’t want to be a teacher or nurse — the chosen professions of those young women not marrying immediately — but wants to be a writer, although she doesn’t know what that means. As she nears graduation, she muses, “All her life she has been in a long tunnel, and finally she is about to burst into clear air and open skies.”

Gerber writes of these women’s adventures, their longings and their self-discovery with sensitivity, quiet humor and an authority that a reader guesses is born of knowing that era intimately. The author of many novels, short-story collections and nonfiction works, she teaches fiction writing at the California Institute of Technology.

Krich brings back her appealing Orthodox sleuth, Molly Blume, in her newest suspense novel, “Now You See Me…” (Ballantine, $13.95), to be published in October.

Recently married to a rabbi and author of a new true-crime book, Blume gets drawn into a case involving the daughter of a well-known rabbi who had been her teacher. The high school girl disappears, it seems, with someone she met in an Internet chatroom. The family refuses to turn to the police, in fear of the reputation of their daughter — and ultimately the entire family — in their close-knit Orthodox community in Los Angeles.

Blume visits the chatroom, struggles to get the girl’s classmates to speak openly with her, calls in favors from friends in the police department without revealing details of the missing girl and unravels some interlocking mysteries in trying to solve the case, which ultimately involved a murder. Krich’s distinctive style is to mix in details about Judaism, about the Orthodox lifestyle in particular, with the clues.

The chatroom where Hadassah meets the person who lures her to meet him is called Jspot — it’s a place where religious kids talk anonymously about sex, drugs and other subjects that are otherwise difficult to discuss in their lives. Her parents are shocked to learn that their daughter would frequent this site, and they also learn other facts of her life that are surprising. The intricacies of the plot can’t be described without giving away details key to the pleasures of discovery for readers.

The book’s epitaph is from the book of Genesis, when Dinah, the daughter of Leah, is taken by Shechem, prince of the land. “He loved the maiden and spoke her heart.”

Maggie Anton’s first novel (and the first in a projected trilogy) is inspired by her own adult study of the Talmud. Every talmudic student quickly learns of the work of the great medieval French scholar Rashi, whose commentary appears in every printed Talmud. Another column on the page includes the work of the tosaphists, the grandsons and disciples of Rashi. Anton’s book “Rashi’s Daughters — Book One: Joheved” (Banot Press, $15.95) tells the forgotten story of the generation of women sandwiched in between. She imagines what the personal and intellectual lives of the three daughters, Joheved, Miriam and Rachel, might have been like. Little has been written of them, although they played a crucial role in Jewish scholarship.

Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Solomon Yitzhak ben Isaac, who was born in Troyes, France, in 1040. The novel is published on the 900th anniversary of his death.

At a time when most women were illiterate, Rashi learned Talmud with his daughters. From the time of the birth of their new sister, the two elder daughters, Joheved and Miriam, began a bedtime secret ritual of studying Talmud, which readers can follow. When it is time for the family to begin thinking about a betrothal for Joheved, even though she is quite young, she makes it clear that she desires to marry a scholar. Indeed, she marries a young man who is a former student of her father. The book includes an absorbing, detailed account of the process of betrothal and marriage.

The novel is also the story of the French Jewish community in medieval times, and the daily lives of Jewish women, many of whom were vintners, merchants, midwives and mothers.

In researching the book, the author who works as a clinical chemist, visited Troyes, Rashi’s birthplace where he founded a school, consulted with scholars in medieval and Jewish studies and read books in English, French and Hebrew. l

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

Signings and Such


Signings and Such
Lynn Isenberg:
“The Funeral Planner”
Thurs., Sept. 29, 7 p.m.: Village Books
1049 Swarthmore Ave. , Pacific Palisades (310)454-4063.
Tues., Oct. 18, 7 p.m.: Dutton’s Bookstore, 447 N. Canon Drive,
Beverly Hills, (310) 281-0997.

Merrill Joan Gerber:
“Glimmering Girls:
A Novel of the Fifties”
Tues., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Reading and talk in conjunction with Jewish Book Month.
Borders at the Westfield Santa Anita Mall, 400 S. Baldwin Ave.
Arcadia, (626) 445-1320.

Rochelle Krich: “Now You See Me…”

Sun., Oct. 2, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: (panel)
10 a.m.-6 p.m. (fair), “Gals with Guns: How Female Authors Have Reshaped the Modern Mystery Novel.” Moderated by Linda Palmer. Panelists: Rochelle Krich, Naomi Hirahara, Taylor Smith and Carolyn Wheat. Signing to follow. Fourth annual West Hollywood Book Fair, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
Los Angeles, www.weho.org/bookfair.

Mon., Nov. 14, 7 p.m.: Duttons of Beverly Hills, 447 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 281-0997.

Tues., Nov. 15, 5 p.m.: Book ‘Em, 1118 Mission, South Pasadena,
(626) 799-9600.

Wed., Nov. 16, 7 p.m.: Mysteries To Die For, 2940 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, (805) 374-0084.

Thurs., Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m.: Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 380-1636.

Sun., Nov. 20, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Mystery panel moderated by Nathan Walpow. Panelists: Rochelle Krich with Jerrilyn Farmer and Robert Levinson.
Jewish Federation, Greater San Gabriel and Pomona Valleys, 258 West Badillo St., Covina, (626) 967-3656.

Mon., Nov. 21, 7 p.m.: Mysterious Galaxy,
7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., San Diego, (858) 268-4747.

Maggie Anton:

“Rashi’s Daughters — Book One: Joheved”

Sat., Sept. 24, 2 p.m.: Donald Bruce Kaufman-Brentwood Branch L.A. Public Library, 11820 San Vicente Blvd. (at Montana Avenue), Los Angeles, (310) 575-8273.

Fri., Sept. 30, 8 p.m.: Shabbat services at Temple Or Ami, 26115 Mureau Road,
No. B, Calabasas,
(818) 880-4880.

Sun., Oct. 23, 10 a.m.: Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles,
(310) 277-2772.

Thurs., Oct. 27. 12:30 p.m.: Jewish Studies Department, CSUN Grand Salon in the University Student Union (just west of Parking Lot G4 off Zelzah Avenue), Northridge, (818) 677-3007.

Tues., Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m.: Long Beach JCC Jewish Book Fair (In conjunction with Cal State Long Beach’s Jewish studies department) Barbara and Ray Alpert JCC, 3801 E Willow St., Long Beach, (626) 426-7601.

Add Inclusiveness to Your Seder Table


 

Imagine going to celebrate a hypothetical holiday with Martian relatives on their planet. You don’t know the language, you don’t know the customs, you don’t know the purpose of the holiday. You might cope by seeing yourself as an anthropologist, witnessing the strange rites of the other. Still, even if you care deeply about your Martian family, the experience isn’t going to feel familiar or personally meaningful. Yet if this is your own family, you might want to become more involved.

For non-Jewish partners, even with the best good will, the seder experience can be strange and unfamiliar. Jewish family members prioritize coming together at this time of year. Festive preparations have been made: There’s a feast that includes ritual foods such as matzah and special items on a seder plate. There may be lots of Hebrew reading accompanying the meal. Or perhaps the family gathers but with no apparent religious themes. Each family’s Passover is unique, yet there are some ways to orient and integrate non-Jewish guests and family members.

For one thing, some universal themes are celebrated at the seder. The greens and hard-boiled egg on the seder plate celebrate the renewal and rebirth of spring. The story of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves can be seen as a celebration of freedom and has become a paradigm of liberation for many peoples, including African American slaves and Tibetan Buddhists. Bringing alive these elements of the story can be an invitation to all people to be part of the celebration.

At some seders, people move beyond the traditional Passover text to have conversations applying the seder themes to their own lives. They see themselves as moving through bondage, liberation, wandering in the desert, and seeking the “promised land” in very personal ways and discuss how each guest feels enslaved or stuck in his or her life. They may say, metaphorically, as you cross the Red Sea, what do you want to leave behind? What do you want to take with you? In what ways can you identify with the Jewish people who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years — where are you confused or questioning? What is the “promised land” for you? A new job? More time for yourself? Less clutter in the house?

If we make the Passover story our own we receive the gift of living within a myth that is larger than our individual selves. All people throughout history have experienced the tight, stuck places of Mitzrayim (Egypt). All people want liberation either from addictions, financial stress, health problems or some other issue. The bigger story that we are part of helps normalize our own trials and tribulations. It gives meaning to the grand journey of life. And the big story is much more accessible to non-Jewish beloveds than the very specific rituals of the seder.

If you don’t think all the members of your Passover gathering would want to focus on spiritual insights and sharing, maybe you and your spouse would want to prepare for Passover together by having these conversations. As the years go by, non-Jewish family members may learn to chant the four questions in Hebrew, spill drops of wine for each of the 10 Plagues and hide the middle matzah for the kids. But nothing will supersede the value of being invited to step into the mythic story of Passover as an insider and full participant.

This article is reprinted with permission of juliegberg@yahoo.com.

 

SWF Rabbi


It begins typically. I am sitting at the bar with some friends drinking a beer out of the bottle. I peel the soggy label off with my freshly painted nails; an odd ritual I took up back in college that has infuriated bartenders all over the world. I scope the scene out of mascaraed eyes — looking for a cute boy to flirt with. That one is too short, his friend is too stalky; the guys to their left are too young, the ones near the door are clearly focused on the silicone blonde types. I go back to my work of peeling off the label from the beer bottle and giggling with my friends.

I reach into my purse to get some lip-gloss and as I look up, I catch the glance of a man with a sweet face standing at the other end of the room. I hold the gaze for a second, offer a smile and look away. I continue to talk with the girls, and then a few minutes later, I look up again to see if he is still on my radar; he is. Another smile. He smiles back. Nice teeth, I think. Nice eyes. Definitely attractive. I look away.

This goes on for about 15 minutes. I find myself playing with my hair; a dead giveaway that I am engaged in the mating dance. I sit up straight. I check that my new shirt from Barney’s is sitting properly and that my jeans are holding my thighs in their most flattering position. I begin to wonder if he has any semblance of a brain under his well-styled hair. I start to hope that he is funny in an ironic sort of way; that he comes from a good family, that he went to a good school, that he has a stellar career. I worry that he might be narcissistic, damaged from a bad relationship, immature, or (please God, no!) cheap.

Our eyes are locking for longer periods now. The smiles are becoming more intimate. I order another beer. He starts to make his way over to me. I feel my heart beating a little faster. I try to act casual. And then he is standing in front of me. And he introduces himself and extends a soft but manly hand and I take it and we begin to converse.

It begins typically, like I said. But now things are about to get interesting. We go through the routine introductions: names, a joke or two … where we grew up, where we live now; and that’s when I know its coming: the dreaded question is well on its way. I may as well ask first. Buy myself some time. Try to figure out how I will choose to answer when it’s my turn.

“What do you do?” I ask. He’s in computer programming. Wonderful. Can’t make too much conversation out of that answer. I try my best. It lasts all of two minutes. And then it happens: he asks the same of me.

I think fast. This guy is really cute, and thus far seemingly perfect. I will take the “ease in slowly” tactic (versus the blunt and shocking method reserved for less promising suitors). The objective here is to offer ambiguous responses upon which I will only elaborate if further questioned; in this way I not only learn how interested he is, but I also give him some time to prepare for the final answer at the end of the series of queries.

“What do you do?” he asks.

I just finished grad school in New York, I say.

“In what?” he asks.

“A sort of theology program,” I say.

“Were you at NYU?”

“It’s connected with NYU,” I say.

“So, is it, like, a master’s degree?”

“Um, I got my masters a few years ago and then got another degree…. No, it’s not a Ph.D. Actually, it was kind of a program in Jewish theology.”

The questions are getting harder to dodge now.

“So, what do you do with that sort of degree?” he asks.

“I do a lot of teaching,” I say.

“Kids?”

“Yeah … and adults. And I write a lot. And I do a fair bit of counseling.”

I try to change the subject. No luck.

“Where do you work?” he asks.

This is it. I have to lay it on him now. I try to look pretty and enhance my appearance of normalcy; I look into his lovely green eyes, take a deep breath, and give it to him straight.

“I am a rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge,” I say.

And then I wait.

First there is the look of shock, but he quickly recovers. He takes a half-step back. I watch the neurons firing in his brain. “She’s a … rabbi,” he’s thinking. I can predict the conversation from this point on; please let him avoid the stupid joke at the beginning. No such luck.

“You must have shaved your beard today,” he says.

Idiot. I force up a chuckle. Here we go.

“So, you’re a rabbi? I didn’t know women could be….”

“Well, they can. … Clearly, I am a liberal Jew. … Yes, actually half of my graduating class was female.”

“So, can you get married?”

“What you mean is, can I have sex?”

He blushes. Poor guy. He’s confused. He doesn’t know where to look. It is suddenly inappropriate that he is checking out my low neckline. It is instantly incongruous that he likes my snug Diesel jeans. He tries, God bless him, to segue back into casual discussion; it lasts for seven minutes. He excuses himself, mutters something about a call he has to make and staggers away in shock.

I go back to peeling the labels off the Heineken. I take another sip of beer and turn back to my friends.

“What are you writing your sermon about for Friday?” one of them asks.

“Well,” I say, and my typical evening becomes filled with words of Torah and the faint hope that someone out there will know how to flirt with a beer-drinking, jeans-wearing, nice Jewish girl who also happens to be a rabbi.

Karen Dieth is rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

Kosher Slaughtering Proves Humane


 

Many people expressed concern about the standards for humane treatment of animals at a kosher slaughterhouse after viewing a well-publicized video of kosher slaughter at the AgriProcessors plant in Iowa, which was released by the animal rights organization PETA.

Any slaughterhouse, whether kosher or nonkosher, is by definition a disconcerting, blood-filled and gruesome place. Torah law, however, is most insistent about not inflicting needless pain on animals and in emphasizing humane treatment of all living creatures.

Kosher slaughter, shechitah, involves cutting the trachea and esophagus with a sharp, flawless knife. At the same time, the carotid arteries, which are the primary supplier of blood to the brain, are severed.

The profound loss of blood and the massive drop in blood pressure render the animal insensate almost immediately. Studies done by Dr. H.H. Dukes at the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine indicate that the animal is unconscious within seconds of the incision.

After the shechitah at AgriProcessors, an additional cut is made in the carotid arteries to further accelerate the bleeding. This is not done for kashrut reasons, for after the trachea and esophagus have been severed, the shechitah is complete, but rather for commercial reasons to avoid blood splash, which turns the meat a darker color. The carotid arteries are attached to the trachea, and at AgriProcessors, the trachea was excised to facilitate the bleeding.

In the overwhelming number of cases, the animal is insensate at that time. However and inevitably, particularly when it is considered that 18,000 cattle were slaughtered during the seven-week period when the video was shot, there was a tiny percentage of animals whose carotid arteries were not completely severed, so they were not completely unconscious. Although this is very infrequent, the removal of the trachea immediately after the shechitah has now been discontinued.

It should be kept in mind that in a nonkosher plant, when the animal is killed by a shot with a captive bolt to the brain, it often has to be re-shot, sometimes up to six times, before the animal collapses. The USDA permits up to a 5 percent initial failure rate.

At AgriProcessors and at other plants it supervises, the Orthodox Union (OU) is committed to maintaining the highest ritual standards of shechitah without compromising the halacha (Jewish law) one bit. The OU continues to vouch for the kashrut, which was never compromised, of all the meat prepared by AgriProcessors.

As I indicated previously, images of slaughter — especially selected images in an abbatoir — are jarring, particularly to the layman. Statements by PETA that animals were bellowing in pain after the shechitah are an anatomical impossibility. After the animal’s throat and larynx have been cut, it cannot vocalize.

PETA is well known for the passion it brings to the issue of animal rights, but it is an organization devoid of objectivity. PETA’s comparison of the killing of chickens to the Holocaust is, at a minimum, morally obtuse. So to whom should we turn for an objective view about the situation at AgriProcessors and about kosher slaughter in general? Here are the opinions of some experts:

1. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge inspected the plant. She found the handling of the animals to be humane and commendable.

She said after viewing the shechitah that the animals were unconscious within two to three seconds. She also said that chickens were handled more carefully by the rabbis than by her own “grandmother on the farm.”

2. AgriProcessors is under constant USDA inspection. Dr. Henry Lawson, the USDA veterinarian at the plant, told me that he considers the treatment of the cattle at AgriProcessors to be humane, and that the shechitah renders them unconscious within a matter of seconds. He determines this by certain physiological criteria related to the eyes, tongue and tail of the animal.

3. Earlier, Rabbi Dr. I.M. Levinger, a veterinarian and one of the world’s foremost experts on animal welfare and kosher slaughter, called the shechitah practices at AgriProcessors “professional and efficient,” emphasizing the humane manner in which the shechitah was handled.

Levinger was also highly impressed with the caliber of the ritual slaughterers. He issued his evaluation following a thorough two-day on-site review of shechitah practices and animal treatment at the plant. He viewed the kosher slaughter of nearly 150 animals.

4. AgriProcessors has hired an animal welfare and handling specialist to evaluate the plant processes. The specialist was recommended by both Dr. Temple Grandin, a foremost expert in animal welfare, and also by the National Meat Association. In reviewing the shechitah process last week, the specialist made the following observations:

\n

• The shechitah process was performed swiftly and correctly;

\n

• The shechitah cut resulted in a rapid bleed.

\n

• All animals that exited the box were clearly unconscious.

The OU and AgriProcessors are committed to the Torah principles of humane treatment of animals. At the OU, we constantly review our procedures, evaluate them and if necessary, improve or correct them. We don’t want ever to be wedded to a mistaken procedure.

AgriProcessors has been completely cooperative in working with the OU and shares our philosophy.

As Torah Jews, we are imbued with the teachings which require animals to be rested, along with people, on the Sabbath and fed before the people who own them, and that the mother bird must be sent away before her young are taken to save her grief. These and similar statutes make it clear that inhumane treatment of animals is not the Jewish way.

Kosher slaughter, by principle, and as performed today in the United States, is humane. Indeed, as PETA itself has acknowledged, shechitah is more humane than the common nonkosher form of shooting the animal in the head with a captive bolt, for reasons noted above.

The Humane Slaughter Act, passed into law after objective research by the U.S. government, declares shechitah to be humane. For Torah observant Jews, it cannot be any other way.

Rabbi Menachem Genack is the rabbinic administrator of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division.

 

Aspirations and Anxiety in America


“The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000” by Hasia Diner (University of California, $29.95)

In the late 1970s, a time when Jews in the United States had arguably achieved more status and social acceptance than in any previous era of their long Diaspora, American Jewish groups began work on a project that culminated in 1993 with the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Mall, of course, is the heart of monumental Washington. It pays tribute to the nation’s most revered icons and heroes. The new museum was a powerful symbol of how thoroughly integrated Jews had become in the fabric of American life and culture. The museum itself was dedicated to the memory of Jewish victims of Nazi fascism. At the very moment that Jews had become an accepted part of the majority culture, they were memorializing their history as a persecuted minority.

The dueling combination of aspiration and anxiety has always characterized the American Jewish experience. But paradoxically, over the past several decades, as Jews have risen to admirable prominence in U.S. society, victimization has become ever more central to American Jewish identity. Even as the last vestiges of anti-Semitic barriers were removed and the vast majority of Jews achieved comfortable, upper-middle-class lives, the Holocaust was elevated to iconic status. The struggle against oppression and discrimination remained at the core of the American Jewish narrative.

But unlike in Europe, where they had long been the quintessential “other,” Jews were never the paradigmatic outsiders in America. While they were at times stigmatized for not being Christian, Jews were nonetheless white people in a nation whose social hierarchy was based on race, not religion. Although some may have questioned Jews’ claim to whiteness, no movement in the United States ever sought to strip them of their citizenship, nor deny them the political rights — voting, holding office and serving on juries — to which white men were entitled. In other words, the discrimination that Jews did face was never comparable to that experienced at various times by blacks, Chinese and other nonwhite groups. Indeed, since the Colonial era, the religious and ethnic tolerance of America has been a relief to the many Jews who’ve arrived on these shores.

In her book, “The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000,” Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish History at New York University, seeks to recast history in light of that fundamental fact. Without ignoring the significant anti-Semitic episodes that did occur nor disavowing the real sense of vulnerability that Jews have often felt, she nonetheless attempts to balance the realities of prejudice and progress. She chronicles Jewish life in America since the first Sephardic refugees arrived in New York City from Brazil in 1654. She explains how both the fluid nature of American identity and the pragmatism at the core of American culture worked to the benefit of Jews. In the 17th century, the relative tolerance Jews enjoyed stemmed from their usefulness to the colonial enterprise. As Diner writes, “trade made the colonies, and Jews made trade.”

Under European colonial rule, Jews did not enjoy full political rights, but from their earliest days of settlement in America Jews sought relief from the highest seats of power. Indeed, their refusal to accept America as it was is what distinguishes the Jewish experience from so many others.

When Peter Stuyvesant sought to exclude the first Jewish refugees from the colony for fear they would destroy its Christian character, the settlers appealed to the Jews of old Amsterdam to intercede on their behalf to the Dutch West India Company. By the time of American Independence, a handful of Jewish merchants had amassed huge fortunes and become pillars of society. Some, like Haym Salomon, who has been called the “financier of the American Revolution,” utilized their trade connections on behalf the colonies’ struggle for independence. The Constitution, which framed America as a society built on individual entitlement rather than on corporate identity, created a “Jewish comfort zone.”

From 1820 to 1920, millions of Jews, primarily from Russian and Eastern Europe, migrated to America. Their growing numbers brought greater confidence and communal diversity. They also drew greater resistance from society at large. By the 1880s, a racialized view of Jews had emerged and some rights were compromised. Jews were refused entry into luxury hotels and denied access to jobs at some elite universities and law firms. At the same time, however, their political rights remained unchallenged. Indeed, their political influence only grew. As anti-Semitic rhetoric rose, greater numbers of Jews entered the political arena. Indeed, political participation, along with philanthropy and programs for self-improvement, were part of a broader effort at Jewish self-defense. As Diner writes, Jews “believed that if they met with the right officials, showed their deep patriotism as Americans and behaved respectably, they could prevail.”

And they did. Even at the peak of American anti-Semitism from the 1920s to the 1940s, Jews progressed. Elite colleges imposed quotas on Jewish students, and affluent neighborhoods sometimes imposed restrictive covenants to prevent Jews from buying homes. But there is nonetheless little indication that these restrictions hampered Jewish mobility. Furthermore, they were also an indication of Jewish ascendance in American society. By the mid-1940s, the majority of Jews were white-collar workers. In terms of education and income, they “far outpaced” the children and grandchildren of other European immigrants. In the postwar years, Jews could afford to suburbanize more than most other Americans. As of 1953, one-sixth of American Jews had graduated from college, compared to one-20th of the population at large.

Even as they moved out of their ethnic urban enclaves, Jews tended to cluster in suburbs that had a strong Jewish presence. Their choice to live with other Jews was driven by preference rather than anti-Semitism. Unmoored from the neighborhood bakeries, bookstores and delicatessens that once defined Jewish life in the city, suburbanites had to redefine what it meant to be Jewish. Suddenly, American Jews, who had been observing fewer and fewer aspects of Jewish ritual, returned to synagogues as the locus of their religious and ethnic identities. The postwar years saw a remarkable explosion in synagogue construction. Between 1945 and 1950, American Jews spent upwards of $500 million erecting new religious buildings. More Jews were affiliated with synagogues than at any other time since mass migration began in the early 19th century.

By the last quarter of the 20th century, no fields of endeavor denied access to Jews. That Jews were prominent in nearly every sector of American life was no longer a subject of much discussion. Indeed, this very diffusion of Jews into all aspects of American society challenged Jewish identity. For many, Jewishness no longer determined “with whom they socialized, whom they married, where they resided, or how they spent their leisure time.” To be Jewish increasingly became a matter of choice. As a result, many of the organizations that had been founded to defend Jews began to spend more energy on preserving Jewish culture and identity in America.

Diner pays particular attention to the ebbs and flows of Jewish identity throughout American history. Just as Jews never felt obliged to accept America as they found it, neither were they afraid to reinterpret Jewish identity to fit the times. “The Jews of the United States” is both balanced and comprehensive. For that reason, however, it is not Diner’s finest work. The sweeping format prohibits her from injecting the texture of the Jewish experience into her interpretation.

While solid and authoritative, “The Jews of the United States” lacks the intimacy and detail that characterized two of Diner’s previous books, “In the Almost Promised Land” and “Hungering for America.”

Still, Diner’s willingness to take on some of the shibboleths of the popular American Jewish narrative is welcome. Indeed, it is what keeps this book from being just another history textbook.

Gregory Rodriguez is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Bar Mitzvah Cheer — Without Cheerleaders


We were halfway through my older son’s bar mitzvah year, and I’d been stumbling through an emotional landscape littered with caterers’ proposals, reception hall bills and unanswered e-mails from my wife demanding that I "please, please call the band and ask them if they are available on the 12th."

I’d also been picking my son up at his classmates’ bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, including some that combine the quiet good taste of a Fox reality series and the aesthetic subtlety of a Super Bowl half-time show.

Most of all, I’d been tormented by the feeling that, after years of smugly criticizing those who still insist on these "Goodbye, Columbus"-style extravaganzas, pride and peer pressure were going to drive me to arrange a simcha on a similar scale.

"Did you book the Lakers cheerleaders?" asked Rabbi Steven Leder, referring to a notorious bar mitzvah party in Los Angeles, where he is rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I had been talking to Leder about his recent book on Jews and money, "More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul" (Bonus Books, 2004).

When I told him no, he said there was still hope.

Here’s his approach to prospective b’nai mitzvah parents: "I sit them down and say, ‘If you were an anthropologist studying the Jews and you were in attendance watching the Saturday morning ceremony, what are the values you would determine as belonging to the tribe of the Jews?’"

The typical family lists Torah, spirituality, prayer, family tradition.

"Then I draw a line on the blackboard, and write ‘Saturday evening.’ Same anthropologist, same tribe — now tell me what the anthropologist would say."

At first the families say all the acceptable things: family, celebration, joy. "And then it starts pouring out: materialism, sexuality, alcohol, conspicuous consumption."

"Listen, I’m not Amish, not a Puritan and I enjoy a nice meal and a glass of wine," Leder said. "The question is: How do we take the values in the morning and make sure they exist in the evening?"

Yes, rabbi. How? How?

Leder says you start by infusing the celebration with ritual. Havdalah on a Saturday night, perhaps a d’var Torah by a child or elder. And then he tells congregants about MAZON, the nonprofit that urges families to donate a percentage of the catering bill to their fight against hunger.

That I can do, I realize. But don’t I have to send the kids home with monogrammed pajama pants, holographic snow globes and glow-in-the-dark necklaces?

"Why not have a station where the kids make something that goes to the sick, poor or needy?"

Leder has another piece of advice for parents, this one more controversial. "In front of their children, I say, ‘You should never put children in an adult environment, a sexually charged environment.’ You’ve seen the spaghetti-strap dresses on 12-year-old girls. There are 100 kids at the party: Do you know what’s going on in the bathrooms?"

"I don’t care what your children want. You are the parent, you are in charge, you are paying for this. Talk about what you believe money is for and not for,’" he said.

I told Leder that my son had his heart in the right place and neither wants nor expects a bacchanal. Even still, won’t his relatives and friends be expecting more than Kiddush and a d’var Torah?

"Here’s the ironic thing," the rabbi said. "Everyone tries to be more unique and over-the-top than anyone else. And you know what, for the kids on the ‘circuit,’ this week feels the same as last week. The kids have become immune to it. If you want to be unique, do something down-to-earth and value-centered."

Leder has his own theories as to why, after years of rabbis’ exhortations, the super-sized bar and bat mitzvah is back in style. People are having kids later, he said, and have more money when their children come of age. Grandparents are older as well, and, with less chance that bubbe and zayde may make it to the grandchildren’s nuptials, b’nai mitzvah celebrations are starting to look and feel like weddings.

But with all these sociological pressures, what does Leder really think he’s achieving with his lists and sermons?

"I think I’m doing two things. I’m giving people with good values permission to hold out against the tide of pop culture," he said. Second, Leder is helping people be more thoughtful about the role money plays in their lives. "This is a subject most rabbis are afraid to talk about. They fear that big donors will be offended and funding sources will dry up."

But won’t they?

"I have a different view. The most generous supporters of the temple are people who have a very healthy and mentschy attitude toward money. I still feel we have an obligation to speak out."

So what did Leder do for his own son’s bar mitzvah? A barbecue at a camp run by his synagogue, a sleepover for the boy’s closest friends and a family brunch the next day.

"One of the proudest days of my life," Leder said, "is the day after, when he looked at me and said. ‘I really think we did this right.’"

Six months later, after my own son’s bar mitzvah, I think we could say the same thing. Noah read Torah like a pro, davened like an angel, and the Kiddush luncheon that followed was tasteful and tasty. And there was barely a spaghetti-strap in sight.

Mother of the Bat


A friend of mine called in a lather the other day, all het up about her daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah.

"I can’t believe it," she said, her voice a good octave higher than usual, "there’s so much to think about. You have to find a place, decide on a menu, pick out flowers and favors and dishware and tablecloths and even tables — you’ve got to pick out tables! You have to know the diameter of the tables you’re going to have in order to choose tablecloths. It’s crazy. It’s too much for me."

"Calm down," I told her. "Everything will fall into place."

And then I thought back to my own experience as the mother of the bat mitzvah, which was followed soon thereafter by my experience as mother of the bar mitzvah, by which time I was seasoned, wiser and only slightly less frantic. There’s something about inviting a sizable number of people to an event, some of whom will be arriving from distant locales, and that "something" is that you want them to be happy they came. To this end, that first time around, there was a sign up in my office that read: "It’s the Bat Mitzvah, Stupid," lest I forget for even one waking moment that I had a two-pronged event to plan: a morning service followed by Kiddush and then a party in the evening.

My husband and I spent our courtship on the protest fields of Washington, D.C. Yet here we were, in the thick of planning what I am sure we once believed to be the most bourgeois enterprise imaginable: a "catered affair," entertainment that would cost thousands and be over in a matter of hours. How had we gotten ourselves into this?

"The meaning of the bar and bat mitzvah," our rabbi intoned at a special service geared toward anxious parents, "is that your child becomes a Jew in his or her own right. You have sent your child to Hebrew school for four years, he or she has attended with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and now, on this day, you give over the responsibility. You release your child to be an independent Jew, the son [bar] or daughter [bat] in charge of the mitzvot."

The truth is, our daughter’s level of enthusiasm for her Hebrew studies rarely wavered. Indeed, she had, from the beginning, chosen to go to Hebrew school, maintained an interest in learning the language, and downright bubbled over the questions of philosophy and social reality that came up in class as a result of the excellent teachers with whom she had the good fortune to study. She had been a bat mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments, from the get-go. And this made her coming-of-age a fitting commemoration of the work she’d put in, and the dedication she had so spiritedly demonstrated.

Of course when, at 8 years old and entering the fourth grade, she’d said that she would like to go to Hebrew school, a big party at the end of her tenure as student was the last thing on her mind. But now that the ritual of the celebration had made itself known to her, well, what self-respecting about-to-be-a-teenager wouldn’t want a party with lots of friends and rock ‘n’ roll?

"OK, so why not just turn up the music and make her a party?" many might wonder, ourselves included. We’d thought about ordering a couple of pizzas and letting the kids have their fun. Why worry about caterers and DJs and rented party rooms, tables and menus and centerpieces? Why spend all this money that a lot of people could really use?

"The ceremony of the bar and bat mitzvah is not an ancient rite," the rabbi told us at that same gathering of parents. "It can’t be found in any of the books of the Torah; in fact, it’s only about 500 years old." (Only a rabbi can make 500 years sound like a drop in the bucket.) "But sometime between the 14th and the 16th centuries, the concept of the bar mitzvah and the celebration that accompanies it took hold. Beginning in Germany and Poland, and readily accepted by Jews around the world, the age of 13 was adapted as the time when the child is not only obliged but allowed to participate as a member in full standing of the Jewish community."

And that’s why the pizza party wouldn’t do. Because, as the rabbi said, the celebration is central to the tradition. And it is a celebration, as I understood it, meant to be of, by and enjoyed with the community. Sure, our daughter could have a party with her friends, but that wasn’t the point. In fact, it would betray the point because that what is being celebrated in the context of the bat mitzvah is the arrival of a new member into the Jewish community. Not a community of teenagers, but a community of mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. A community that does reach back to ancient times, even as representatives of its many generations gather at this time to welcome its newest trained, educated and committed member.

Let the kids dance? Sure. But let all of us, of many ages, rejoice as well at the triumph that the bat mitzvah party symbolizes — our continuity.

I’m of the generation that created the atmosphere in which Jewish daughters feel it is their right to share in this mere 500-year-old practice. The generation that fought for civil rights, rebelled against everything our parents taught us and then returned to a good deal of it. Still questioning, probing and, yes, justifying. I ask myself how many more mouths could be fed, and how much hope made a little bit more possible were I to chuck the catered affair and send the money to those in need. But then I came back to my daughter, and the profound weight of her decision to study. It’s a mere drop in the bucket that created enough of a splash to ripple indefinitely into the past that is her heritage, and the future her decision will help create.

So, yes, we made a splash, too. And I continued to question the political correctness of it, worry over the details of it, and break into an intense fit of angst when I realized I still hadn’t decided on the menu. For, as my grandmother taught me well: If you invite people to join you in celebration, "You’ve got to give them what to eat.


Elyce Wakerman teaches composition at CSUN and is the author of “Father Loss: Daughters Discuss the Man That Got Away” (Henry Holt, 1987). She is currently working on a book about the year her daughter left for college.

Yom HaShoah’s Uncertain Future


Will lighting six candles and reciting "Kaddish" rouse the emotions and intellect of generations of Jews who never met a Holocaust survivor?

Within the next 40 years or so, most Holocaust survivors will no longer be alive, making this question less theoretical. Before that happens, Holocaust scholars and professionals are challenging today’s Jews to take responsibility for either etching Yom HaShoah as a permanent fixture onto the Jewish calendar, or letting it fade into history along with the survivors who founded it.

"I have been alive for every Yom HaShoah in Jewish history. It’s the equivalent of being in the first generation that observed Passover," said Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at the University of Judaism. "We are precisely in that first iteration as that first generation. That is why we are reaching for forms. It is an incredible privilege and an incredible responsibility, and part of that responsibility is how do we shape the forms that will endure?"

The question comes amid increasing debate about how prominent a role the Holocaust should play in American Jewish identity, and whether resources would be better spent on Jewish education and positive cultural activities. At the same time, and pulling in the opposite direction, increasing anti-Semitism and violence against Jews in Israel, Europe and other countries has called into question the comfort of assuming that the world has learned the lessons of the Holocaust.

"A basic rule for the times we live in today is that we should no longer stand in silent tribute to dead Jews with anyone who has no respect or concern for live ones," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

But wherever one falls on the balance of how central the Holocaust should be to American Jewry, most agree that remembrance on Yom HaShoah is appropriate, and the only question becomes in what form.

"We are in a transitional period in Jewish history," Cooper said. "The survivors, the witnesses, are slowly but inevitably leaving the scene, and the connectedness to the first-person experience is certainly crucial. It’s going to be a challenge to maintain the poignancy, the educational aspect and the communal commitment to remembering Yom Hashoah. In order to have that, you have to have more year-round education of our young."

To that end, the Wiesenthal Center makes sure that at least half the audience at Yom HaShoah programs are students, and thousands of students visit the Museum of Tolerance every year.

Interfaith memorials and joint ceremonies with other groups who have been victimized — Rwandans, Armenians, Kosovars — have also become common. Marcia Reines Josephy, former director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said that as long as the uniqueness of the Holocaust is not compromised in such events, such joint remembrances help transmit what she thinks should be the key message of Yom HaShoah.

"The lesson I always tried to tell the students who came to the museum was that the Holocaust is the ultimate degradation of humanity, but if we can learn from that that you don’t have to like everybody you associate with but you can respect differences, than we’ve learned something important," Josephy said.

While lighting six memorial candles, reciting "Kaddish" and the "El Maleh Rachamim" memorial prayer have become standards at most events, some are trying to bring Yom HaShoah into line with other enduring Jewish observances by adding sacred texts and ritual actions.

The Conservative movement last year introduced Megillat HaShoah, a six-chapter booklet written by Rabbi Avigdor Shinan that tells of the Holocaust from six different vantage points.

"We felt there was a need for a sacred text that would be read every year — like the Book of Esther on Purim, or Ruth on Shavuot," said Rabbi Perry Rank, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation has created a Yom HaShoah seder, where teenagers act out and retell the stories of survivors — both published ones and the personal stories of shul members. Incorporated into the storytelling are ritualized foods — dry bread and watery boiled cabbage. At various points participants are asked to put their jewelry and glasses into a large box, or to get up and move away from their children.

"What I found is that survivors themselves deeply appreciate this kind of observance and have been very forthcoming in giving us their stories for adaptation," said Kanefsky, who picked up the idea for a seder from Rabbi Avi Weiss in Riverdale, N.Y. "The children have a means of connecting to the Shoah in an emotional and intellectual way they wouldn’t otherwise have."

Dr. Joel Geiderman, director of emergency medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, is looking for a more subtle but universal observance. Geiderman, the son of survivors who sits on the United States Holocaust Council, is promoting the idea of everyone — Jews and non-Jews — wearing yellow star lapel pins on Yom HaShoah.

"I think even in the United States there is not enough awareness of Yom HaShoah," said Geiderman, who hopes to launch the pin next year. "I think in the last few years there are more events and community activities, but it would be nice if there was something done in a more routine manner, more universally. This was a tragedy for all mankind."

Berenbaum said he believes more people attend Yom HaShoah events today than did 25 years ago, because rather than fading from memory the Holocaust has gained significance as it moves further into history.

"I think it is safe to say that there are enough institutions that are committed to remembering the Holocaust that they will succeed in preserving the memory," said Berenbaum, who played a key role in creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "In every field of knowledge worldwide — films, museum, literature, historical scholarship — the Holocaust occupies an enormously significant role and that is because it has become the negative absolute of modern society. Consequently it would be wrong to presume that it would not be around in another generation."

Add to that the unprecedented volume of recorded firsthand testimony, and the legacy of the Holocaust seems all but assured.

The Israeli parliament in 1950 established the 27th of Nissan as Yom HaShoah V’hagevurah, the Day of Holocaust and Heroism. While early remembrances were primarily attended by survivors, by the 1960s the date was more universally observed, and in 1980 the United States Congress established the Days of Remembrance, mandating federal agencies to commemorate the Holocaust during the week of Yom HaShoah.

It was then that large communal observances began to take shape, such as the communitywide memorial at Pan Pacific Park, which attracts hundreds every year (see sidebar).

Today, the Jewish community again finds itself at a juncture in Holocaust remembrance.

Berenbaum watches all of these attempts with interest, aware that the searching going on in this generation will help Yom HaShoah to find its natural and hopefully lasting expression.

One of the reasons a satisfactory expression has remained elusive is because the topic itself is so difficult, he said.

Some historical tragedies, such as Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple, are remembered in theological terms — we sinned, God punished us, we repented. Others, such as Purim and Chanukah, are about God snatching the Jews from the jaws of defeat.

But the Holocaust neither makes theological sense, nor can the deaths of 6 million be termed anything other than defeat, despite attempts to train the lens on resistance.

"The Holocaust challenges our religious forms, it challenges our religious responses, it challenges a whole range of things," Berenbaum said. "When we don’t develop an easy language of commemoration in part it is because the reality of how to deal with the Holocaust is complex and tough."

Chanukah Concert Picks Up the Pace


About three weeks before an annual Chanukah concert, Kathleen Abraham renews a Jewish ritual little practiced outside the county’s borders.

On her day off, Abraham left home at 5:30 a.m., stopping at a convenience store to fill a 64-ounce coffee mug before heading to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Besides java, Abraham’s other provisions include a nosh, cell phone, PalmPilot and beach chair.

Her goal: to be at the head of the box office line to buy a block of 100 prime seats at the Dec. 7 Chanukah show for parents and congregants of Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm.

“I thought they were psychotic,” said Abraham, who spurned the box office rush when first hearing about it four years ago. “We ended up in the cheap seats,” conceded the cantor’s assistant. Not this year.

She and a dozen other designated ticket buyers from day schools and synagogues reprise the predawn ritual more typical for a touring rock star.

This year’s 2 p.m. concert, produced by Newport Beach residents Dr. Gordon and Hannareta Fishman since 1995, will take a fresh, faster-paced approach with more musical continuity. Each of the 11 children’s choruses, drawn from throughout the community, will perform music arranged and composed solely by singer-songwriter Sam Glaser, who headlines the show.

With a lineup of representative choruses from each Jewish denomination, Fishman contends no other place in the country orchestrates such a pluralistic Chanukah event.

Synagogue and school choirs will perform Glaser songs in small groups and as a large ensemble. They will accompany the singer along with a seven-piece band. The show will also feature an Israeli dance troupe from Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School.

To shorten the show, cantors will forego individual solos. “It’s a great format,” said Cantor Jonathan Grant, who won’t miss his turn in the spotlight. “Kids put in hours and hours rehearsing. It’s an enormous way of teaching the value of Jewish community.”

Previous concerts relied on a musical theme, such as Broadway tunes, to unify presentations by individual choruses. Each cantor selected his own music and a celebrity typically served as a master of ceremonies.

However, last year’s turnout showed signs of audience fatigue with many unfilled seats in the second and third tier. Since much of the audience is made up of parents of performers, attendance ebbs and flows with the size of each chorus.

The Fishmans decided to revamp their approach after attending an all-Glaser concert last February put on by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony at the lovingly restored Alex Theater in Glendale.

“He was touched by the fact that the audience was young and old, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox,” said Glaser, a record producer and performer, who adopted Orthodoxy as an adult. He took the plunge into Jewish music in 1991 and has since produced 12 CDs. He brings high-energy pop rhythms to songs in Hebrew and English.

“Music is a very special language,” Glaser said. “It’s cross-cultural and cross-denominational. Words penetrate the intellect but music goes straight to the soul.”

Creating a platform that would appeal to the community’s diverse Jewish groups is what initially motivated the Fishmans, who relocated in 1993 from Detroit and its more established Jewish community. Only six synagogues participated in the first concert held at Irvine’s more intimate Barclay Theater. “We had to talk them into it,” Gordon Fishman said. “They weren’t doing anything for one another and were jealous of their fiefdom.”

He dangled an incentive too good to pass up: half the proceeds from ticket sales, priced this year at $18 and $36 for adults and $9 for children. (Bat Yahm, for instance, alone takes in a minimum of $1,200 from its share of ticket sales.) The result is that the concert is generally only promoted within organizations sending a performance group. The only marketing that reaches a general audience is an ad included in the Performing Arts Center program distributed during other shows.

The Fishmans, who underwrite whatever ticket sales don’t cover, sought a bigger house after averting a near riot in the first year by the sellout crowd. The Performing Arts Center presents different logistical problems, such as drafting one adult volunteer for every 10 kids.

And sometimes well-intentioned diversions go awry, such as an intermission appearance one year by the television superheroes known as the Power Rangers. The second half was delayed by 15 minutes because the audience refused to return to their seats.

Or last year’s ceiling drop of Chanukah gelt, which set off a stampede of sorts that scattered kids while parents impatiently waited at pre-arranged pick-up doors.

“I’ve learned we can’t do everything,” Gordon Fishman said.

One unexpected result is the Fishmans’ own social calendar is now crowded with cantorial music. Having become acquainted with cantors throughout the county, they now accept invitations to three or four concerts a year that individual cantors organize at their home synagogue. “When you give a little,” Gordon Fishman said, “you get a lot in return.”

The curtain goes up at 2 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets, $18 and $36 for adults, $9 children, can be purchased at the center’s box office or Ticketmaster.

Go for a Holy Dip


Picture a woman floating submersed in a warm bath, the water enveloping her like the womb and bringing her to a renewed state of spiritual purity. That is the experience of the mikvah, the ritual bath of natural water where for centuries Jewish women have immersed themselves after their menstrual cycles and after childbirth.

This month the Fine Arts Council of the University of Judaism (UJ) is exhibiting a collection of ethereal mikvah photographs that examines all facets of the mikvah experience. Titled “The Mikvah Project,” the exhibit combines the work of photographer Janice Rubin and writer Leah Lax.

Rubin and Lax, who both live in Houston, interviewed women in five different U.S. cities and asked them for their personal stories of mikvah use. The stories, all told anonymously, range from tales of using icy mikvahs in the former Soviet Union with the threat of gulag looming over every dip to using the mikvah to feel renewed after a divorce or an abusive relationship.

“We didn’t know that we were going to tap into this sort of grass-roots rebirth of mikvah outside of the Orthodox community,” Lax said. “Ultimately, half of our subjects use mikvah according to Jewish law, and the other people have utilized mikvah into all kinds of personal and creative rituals.”

With their aquatic grace, the photographs in “The Mikvah Project” manage to illustrate the mystical secrecy of this ancient mitzvah, and the uniqueness of the mikvah experience. Each subject in the exhibition put her own personal imprint on these bodies of pure water, and so in many ways, it seems, the ritual becomes a form of prayer — an opportunity to connect to God using one’s whole body.

“We didn’t have a single interview without tears,” Lax said. “At the end of every interview, I would say, ‘Come with me now. Close your eyes, we are standing at the railing of the mikvah. Tell me what you are thinking.”‘

And the women would say, “It’s just me and God,” she said.

The Mikvah Project exhibition opens Oct. 26 at the
Marjorie and Herman Platt and Borstein Galleries at the UJ, 15600 Mulholland
Drive, Bel Air. Call (310) 476-9777 or visit www.mikvahproject.com .

Victor Haim Perera


Victor Haim Perera was haunted by a curse. His great-grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Moshe Perera of Jerusalem, had warned his sons and grandsons never to leave the Holy Land without consent “from now to eternity.”

The author of “The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey,” a nonfiction work largely about that curse, died in Santa Cruz on June 14. He was 69.

Perera’s parents were Sephardim from Jerusalem who immigrated to Guatemala City in the 1920s.

“Why Guatemala?” he asked in a talk sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture at Stanford University in 1998. “I’ve written four books to try to answer that question, and the closest I’ve come is, why Guatemala?”

When he was 12, his family moved to New York City. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he got a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Michigan.

Perera worked at various times for The New Yorker, The New Republic and The New York Times Magazine. From 1972 to 1979 he taught journalism and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz, and then taught at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley from 1993 to 1998.

He was “a man of intense and diverse interests, all connected by a search for a kind of mystical affinity or spirituality,” his friend Bernard Taper, a retired UC Berkeley professor who met Perera back in his New Yorker days, said in a 1998 interview.

“The Cross and the Pear Tree” was not only about Perera’s own family, but about the history of Sephardic Jewry. In that work, he blamed his father, who turned away from Jewish ritual, for “all but turn[ing] me into a Marrano,” Perera told the Bulletin in a 1995 interview, referring to Sephardim who converted to Christianity but secretly continued to practice Judaism.

Doing the book was a form of therapy for him, Perera said. “It has lifted the sense of the curse. It has humanized the story for me.”

Perera’s ambivalence about Judaism continued throughout his life. In 1995, he described himself as “deeply Jewish” and “quintessentially Sephardic,” but also as a “twice-a-year Jew” who had no tolerance for strict observance.

“The Cross and the Pear Tree” is one of three books Perera wrote with Jewish themes. “The Conversion,” published in 1970, is a historic novel about the Jews of Spain, and “Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood,” published in 1986, is a memoir of his childhood.

He was a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Ivri-NASAWI, an organization intended to promote Sephardi-Mizrachi culture.

In 1998, Jordan Elgraby, Ivri-NASAWI’s other co-founder, said Perera was irreplaceable in the Sephardic academic community. Elgraby is currently at work on an anthology of Perera’s work that will be published in the fall.

In 1998, Perera had just taken a swim at Tilden Park’s Lake Anza when he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. He then moved to a rehabilitation facility in Santa Cruz.

A year after his stroke, he had regained his ability to speak, but he was only able to do so with great difficulty.

In 1999, a benefit was held by his friends to help pay for his care. Held at the Portola Valley home of Myra Lappin, the event drew more than 100 people and raised nearly $5,500. Lappin, who had studied Ladino with Perera, said he inspired her to do genealogy work, which led to her discovery that she had some Sephardic roots.

“Victor was a large part of opening my eyes to a culture that I belonged to but was largely unaware of,” Lappin said.

Perera was divorced; he is survived by his nephew, Daniel.

Donations can be sent to: Ivri-NASAWI, 1033 N. Orlando Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90069.

7 Days In Arts


Saturday

Laemmle Theatres serves up more Jewish documentariesthis weekend under the banner of their cleverly titled screening series “Bagelsand Docs.” At Laemmle Monica, early risers can catch “Undying Love,” a film thatrecounts the stories of young couples whose relationships were affected by WorldWar II. “Nicholas Winton: The Power of Good,” and “Ruthie and Connie: Every Roomin the House” will also be shown as part of the morning screening series thisweekend, at the Laemmle Fallbrook and Sunset 5, respectively. Bagels notincluded. www.laemmle.com

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Sunday

Short and stout? Think again. Encouraging a reexamination of such houseware stereotypes, Long Beach Museum of Art unveils its new exhibition today, “Teapots Everywhere.” Designs by Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring are just two of the more than 250 mold-breaking variations featured in the show. Other contributors include Cindy Sherman, Ron Nagle and Tony Marsh, promising kettles in every size, shape and material imaginable.11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Tuesday-Sunday). Runs through Sept. 14. $5 (general), $4 (students and seniors), free (children under 12 and for everyone on the first Friday of the month). 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (562) 439-2119.”Mona Lisa/Van Gogh” by Noi Volkoy.

Monday

Zehava Ben lends her unique voice and singing style totwo new CDs that manage to feature many of the same Israeli standards and, atthe same time, sound completely different. In “Beit Avi” (“My Father’s House”)Ben is accompanied by the Symphonic Orchestra of Hadera, lending a soulful,classic Mediterranean sound to songs like “Hanasich Hakatan” (“The LittlePrince”) and “Zemer Noge” (“Sentimental Tune”). In “Laroz Variations,” Ben’spairing with top Israeli electronic music producer Haim Laroz adds trance beatsfor a world-fusion treatment of those same melodies and others. $15-$17. www.israel-music.com

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Tuesday

The tale begins when Ivy League-educated Richard Rubin takes a job as a reporter in the small Mississippi town of Greenwood. Part coming-of-age story, part courtroom drama, “Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South” dispels some assumptions about the New South just as it corroborates others, and is out in paperback this month.Atria Books, $14.

Wednesday

Do you aspire to hobnob, but can’t afford thegrand-a-plate dinners quite yet? Benefiting Lifeline to Argentina, an emergencyrelief project that helps Argentine Jews, Charity Stars sponsors an artexhibition and wine tasting on the beach in Santa Monica. At $25 a ticket (inadvance), it’s a good deed you can afford, plus excellent preparation forplayers-in-training. 7:30-10:30 p.m. $25 (in advance), $35 (at the door).Hamilton Galleries, 1431 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (310) 936-5674 orcharitystars@yahoo.com

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Thursday

Grab a date and head out for good jazz and good food tonight. Steve March Torme (as in Mel Torme’s offspring) performs at The Vic in Santa Monica, the upstairs part of the romantic Victorian. Expect some old standards like “Blue Skies” and “Stardust,” both from his new album “The Essence of Love.” Just be sure to make a reservation. That’s the only way you’ll find out the password required to gain entry to this modern-day speakeasy.8 p.m. and 10 p.m. $10 (cover). 2640 Main St., Santa Monica. R.S.V.P., (888) 367-5299.

Friday

Jennifer Maisel’s “The Last Seder” tells the story of a family’s last gathering before the father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, will be placed in a care facility. Through the course of the play, the ritual of the seder becomes a channel for the family’s healing. Having helped launch the careers of playwrights like Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, the Ensemble Studio Theatre (through their West Coast branch, “The L.A. Project”) presents a staged reading of this new play tonight and Sunday.8 p.m. (June 27 and 29). $10. Theatre/Theater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd., fourth floor, Hollywood. (213) 368-9552.

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